It’s astounding how Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s comment Friday in Davos that he has no intention of uprooting settlements, and the ensuing clarification by his office that Jews should be allowed to live in a Palestinian state if they so desire, has taken on a life of its own, seemingly divorced from reality.
For instance, no one is asking the Palestinians.
A few observations.
First, there is nothing new here. The prime minister has never said that an agreement means he will uproot settlements and evacuate the Jews who live there. He has never endorsed the model whereby any territory evacuated by Israel must become completely free of Jews. Indeed, officials close to him have said over the last four years that he views that position as immoral.
Why, they say – reflecting his thinking – can Israel have an Arab minority of some 20 percent, but a future Palestinian state must be Jew-less? Netanyahu hinted at this in his 2011 address to Congress.
“The status of the settlements will be decided only in negotiations, but we must also be honest,” he said. “So I’m saying today something that should be said publicly by all those who are serious about peace. In any real peace agreement, in any peace agreement that ends the conflict, some settlements will end up beyond Israel’s borders.”
Second, the whole exercise of the last two days – with Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, as well as some of Netanyahu’s own Likud members, slamming Netanyahu for raising the issue, and Netanyahu firing back in kind against Bennett – is another great example of the Israeli penchant to hash these issues out around our own campfire. As though there were not another party on the other side that has to agree.
This penchant to talk among ourselves and avoid the other side can also been seen in the new billboard campaign launched by a group of businessmen called Breaking the Impasse, urging Netanyahu to come to an agreement with the Palestinians.
The slogan is “Bibi, only you can.” As though it were only up to him; as though the Palestinians do not need to give in a bit here and there.
What we have seen over the last two days over the “settlements in Palestine” issue is Jew arguing with Jew over whether other Jews can live in a future Palestinian state.
There is another side whose say on the matter is rather salient. Are the Palestinians interested in such an arrangement? Will they concur? Why should Israelis go head-to-head over an issue that, on the face of it, seems completely theoretical? There are some who are claiming that this whole issue is a “trial balloon”; that by raising the issue, Netanyahu was testing the waters domestically, internationally and among the Palestinians. But this is unlikely for a couple of reasons.
First, Netanyahu did not initiate the idea on Friday. This notion was not part of any prepared remarks he delivered; rather, it was in response to a question about the Jordan Valley asked at a press conference after he met US Secretary of State John Kerry. He replied that he had no intention of evacuating any settlements, and his office later made clear that this was true of the whole West Bank, not just the Jordan Valley.
Second, this is an idea that has been in the public domain already, and which has even been discussed in the past with the US and the Palestinians.
Matters started to spin out of control regarding this issue over the past few days because of domestic politics.
Bennett is the head of a party that sees itself as representing the settlement community, part of which is not thrilled that he is sitting in a government that has Justice Minister Tzipi Livni leading the negotiations with the Palestinians. And part of that constituency obviously is even less thrilled that someone is talking about the possibility of having to choose between Israeli and Palestinian citizenship.
So Bennett – cognizant of his constituency and its feelings – fires off an angry response against Netanyahu, which triggers a reaction from sources close to the prime minster, saying that Bennett was harming Netanyahu’s efforts to reveal to the world the true face of the Palestinians. Showing the world that the Palestinian Authority wants a territory free of Jews helps Israel’s cause, this argument goes.
Livni then responded as well, chastising Netanyahu, though without mentioning him by name, by saying that the purpose of the negotiations is to reach peace, not to unmask anyone.
One of the reasons Bennett was able to join this coalition, even with Livni leading the negotiations and Netanyahu backing a two-state solution, was the belief that the talks would not go anywhere since the Palestinians would not be able to make the compromises they would have to make – on the refugees, on Jerusalem, on Israel’s security concerns, on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state – to enable Netanyahu to accept an agreement.
Why leave the government over something that the Palestinians will ultimately reject? That was Bennett’s thinking then, and despite the current brouhaha, it remains his thinking.
All eyes now are on the document that Kerry will put on the table, a document spelling out the “endgame,” which will serve as the basis for further negotiations for another year. One development that should be watched is whether this document will have to be taken to the cabinet for its approval.
If it does, that could force a crisis.
The less substantive the document, the less gravitas it has, the “lighter” it is, the better for Netanyahu, because that way he may not have to take it to the cabinet for its approval; or if he does, he can say the document will only form the basis of negotiations, and while Bennett may vote against it, the meagerness of the document might enable him to remain in the government.
And all the rhetoric aside, Bennett has no real political interest right now in bolting the government; nor does Netanyahu have any interest right now in pushing him out and shaking up a relatively stable coalition.
This explains something else that happened at Davos over the weekend.
At the press conference after the Kerry meeting, Netanyahu downplayed the significance of the document the secretary of state is trying to hammer out, saying it was not a framework agreement but rather merely a paper that would form the basis of continued negotiations. It was not an agreement, nor a framework agreement, but merely guidelines.
Guidelines are just that, guidelines: nothing binding, nothing that might even have to be taken to the cabinet, nothing that will bring down the coalition – at least, not yet.