Inside Out: Netanyahu’s Palestinian predicament
The stakes are so high, and the confidence in the outcome is so low it is no surprise Netanyahu’s response in the past three years has been to do virtually nothing.
US President Obama with Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas, September 1, 2010. Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Palestinian predicament is truly vexing. The
stakes are so high, and the confidence in the outcome is so low it is no
surprise Netanyahu’s response in the past three years has been to do virtually
Netanyahu’s decision to maintain the status quo, beyond reasons
of substance, was reinforced by his own ideological predisposition, a
fundamental mistrust of Palestinian intentions and political expedience. Serious
advances toward a final-status arrangement with the Palestinians would only have
produced not only significant security risks for Israel, but would also have
alienated the Likud base and its so-called “natural” partners, placing his
coalition in jeopardy.
Inaction, however, is unlikely to continue to be
viable policy for the new Netanyahu government, no matter what its
Surely, few would dispute that international pressure has
been mounting for Israel to end the occupation and to allow for the emergence of
an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank. The UN General Assembly vote
last November to upgrade the PA to observer-state status, which was secured with
the active and passive support of many key Israeli allies, was broadly perceived
as a signal of those allies’ displeasure with Israel’s polices on the West Bank
and their skepticism about the sincerity of the Israeli prime minister’s
The local media, moreover, have reported repeatedly in the
past few months about plans by Israel’s European allies, spearheaded by the UK
and France, to apply real pressure on Israel in the form of sanctions, with the
goal of prompting Israel to take steps that would culminate in the emergence of
an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank in 2013.
without mentioning the pressure that US President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit
to Israel and the PA in another five weeks is certain to produce in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu is not going to want to send the American president away
He will be impelled either to do or, at the very least, to
say something meaningful on the Palestinian front during President Obama’s
And yet, the Palestinian predicament remains frustratingly vexing
for Netanyahu. For a variety of good reasons, the Israeli political leadership
and general public have little faith in the Fatah-led Palestinian
Despite the extended lull in terrorist activity out of the
West Bank that has been achieved in recent years under Mahmoud Abbas and PA
prime minister Salam Fayyad’s leadership, the memory of the al-Aksa intifada, in
which Fatah supporters played a prominent role, is still strong in the minds of
Israelis. Many are skeptical of Fatah’s fundamental integrity, and doubt the PA
intends truly to uphold its end of any agreement reached.
ought to question the wisdom of trying to broker a deal with Abbas, whose term
as the elected Palestinian president ended four years ago.
– not to mention Palestinians – would justly argue that Abbas, who has refrained
from holding elections since 2006, cannot claim to be the legitimate
representative of even the Palestinian population in the West Bank.
conclusion that Netanyahu and many other Israelis have drawn – in facing a
putative partner that is perceived as both untrustworthy and illegitimate – is
that Israel should not and indeed must not take any substantive steps toward
ending its dominion over the Palestinian residents of the West Bank until a
credible and clearly legitimate partner is seated in Ramallah
WHAT CAN Netanyahu do, caught thus between the mounting
international impatience with the soon 46- year-old Israeli occupation of the
West Bank, on the one hand, and his own severe misgivings about his presumed
negotiating partners, on the other? Doing nothing while citing Palestinian
intransigence – which has been Netanyahu’s chosen course of action in the past
three years – is unlikely to yield good results for Israel any longer. On the
contrary, all signs indicate that Israeli inaction will prompt other global
powers, including some of Israel’s allies in the West, to try to force an end of
the Israeli occupation either by means of sanctions, an imposed solution or
both. Even if Israel successfully resists those efforts, the political, economic
and diplomatic price paid by Israel will be forbiddingly high.
Netanyahu must persuade world leaders that he is sincere in his desire to bring
about an end of the Israeli occupation, despite his misgivings about the
Palestinian leadership and irrespective of what he believes the Palestinians’
ultimate intentions may be. Merely reaffirming the principles of his 2009
Bar-Ilan speech, as he did this week in a speech before the Conference of
Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, is unlikely to
be sufficiently persuasive.
Rather, the prime minister will to have to be
more specific in demarcating the boundaries of the future Palestinian state he
envisions, even at the risk of angering the pro-settler lobby, including within
his own party. Moreover, he is going to have to back up those words with steps
that will begin to establish those boundaries in practice, even in the absence
of a peace agreement with a Palestinian partner. One of those steps is likely to
be a commitment unlimited in time not to build anywhere beyond Israel’s
envisioned future borders – to wit, not outside the major settlement
The author is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.