Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas defied the United States and Israel on Tuesday night when he signed documents to have the PA join 15 international agencies, contrary to his commitment to refrain from precisely that type of unilateral action until April 29, when the nine month-period allotted to negotiations is scheduled to end.
Judging by the theatrical nature of the gesture - holding the vote and signing ceremony on live Palestinian television - it would seem that Abbas is more intent on haggling for a better deal than on actually scuttling the American effort to extend the negotiations through to 2015.
After all, in the past three days Israel has already agreed to be much more forthcoming with the Palestinians.
The Netanyahu government is reportedly prepared to release not only the last group of 26 convicted murderers, including 14 Arab Israelis, but 400 additional Palestinian prisoners convicted of lesser crimes.
Encouraged by Netanyahu’s flexibility, the Palestinians have begun to demand even more in return for their consent to extend negotiations. Complemented by Abbas’s theatrics, the Palestinians have demanded that Israel release as many as 1,000 prisoners, including prominent Palestinian political figures and convicted murderers, such as Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Saadat.
The Palestinians have also reiterated their demand for a full moratorium on Israeli construction everywhere beyond the Green Line as a precondition for extending the talks.
Israel has thus far refused to accede to that newest Palestinian demands. While that show of resolve by Netanyahu is admirable, just like Abbas’s performances it, too, is ultimately just a show.
It was not so many years ago that Israel used to refuse adamantly to release any prisoners with “blood on their hands,” and it was Netanyahu who would personally inveigh against any prisoner release whatsoever. But in the past eight months Netanyahu has released 78 convicted murderers, all of whom have a great deal of blood on their hands, and he has done so without batting an eye.
Until recently, Netanyahu government officials also voiced fervent opposition to releasing Arab-Israeli prisoners.
Judging by the news reports on Tuesday and Wednesday, that erstwhile red line appears to have been crossed as well – in principle, if not yet in practice.
TO WHAT end has all this been done by Netanyahu? Merely to ensure that negotiations that have gone nowhere for the past eight months will be extended for another nine months. More importantly, this has been done to ensure that Israel does not lose the blame game if the negotiations are not extended.
Do those ends justify the means? Hardly. While releasing murderers of the kind that have been set free in the past eight months would make sense in the context of a larger peace deal, as a token of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, to do so merely to buy political time is inexcusable. It makes a mockery of the Israeli justice system and, if done repeatedly enough, is likely to lead to vigilantism. After all, if the public feels the state cannot be trusted to mete out adequate punishment to murderers, the families of victims are liable to begin to take justice into their own hands.
The problem begins and ends with Netanyahu’s unwillingness or inability to articulate a vision for Israel. If he were to set a clear set of goals – be it annexing the West Bank and naturalizing the Palestinian residents as Israelis, or ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank – Netanyahu would be able to enlist the concessions he has made and the red lines (of his own making) that he has crossed to furthering those goals. In the absence of a clearly articulated vision, however, the only thing Netanyahu gains by making concessions and crossing his own red lines is time: time in which he is not forced to make larger concessions or face being blamed for the failure of the process.
The time has come for Netanyahu to articulate his vision for Israel. If it is a withdrawal from most of the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian state with security provisions and keeping the major settlement blocs, let him say so, and try to form a coalition that will help implement that. If it is to annex the West Bank and to offer the Palestinian residents full citizenship, let him say so, and see if he can muster a coalition that might support such a goal. If it is a third option, let him articulate his vision and work to make it manifest.
A leader’s job is to lead, to set priorities, to stake out a vision and to adopt policies that help achieve those priorities and that vision. Netanyahu has been either unwilling or unable to do so up until now, and Israelis have paid the price in the form of murderers being set free in return for essentially nothing, international pressure to make more concessions and an inability to tailor investments to suit the vision for the country.
Despite all the criticism he has received in the past year, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid has shown precisely that kind of leadership. He has said clearly what his priorities are and what his vision for Israel is, and he has set out to enact policies to make those priorities and vision manifest. The concessions he has made – mainly to his primary coalition partner, Bayit Yehudi, on issues of state and religion and settlement activity – were made with an eye to securing support for his own vision and priorities.
Lapid might be a novice in comparison to Netanyahu, and one can certainly disagree with the substance of his vision for Israel and his priorities, but he has proven himself to be made of the stuff leaders are made of, in a way that Netanyahu never has.
The writer is a veteran author and translator.