‘Tell me,” a mid-level EU diplomat said last week over a cup of coffee in a Jerusalem hotel. “What does Bibi really want. Does he really want a peace agreement?”
Embedded inside that question is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s problem with much of the world: The man can’t buy a break.
In his 10 months in office, Netanyahu has broken with his past in expressing a desire to see a Palestinian state – albeit with a number of restrictions – in Judea and Samaria, has declared an unprecedented moratorium on housing starts in West Bank settlements and has stated at nearly every opportunity that he is just dying to start immediate negotiations with the Palestinians to talk about everything, including Jerusalem.
But still, when Bibi-skeptic Europeans come to a conversation about the diplomatic process, the first question is inevitably whether Netanyahu is sincere.
The question is not whether PA President Mahmoud Abbas – who by his own admission in a Washington Post interview last year turned down a generous offer from then prime minister Ehud Olmert, and who is adamantly refusing to restart negotiations until Netanyahu accedes to his demand for a total settlement construction halt – wants peace, but rather whether Netanyahu does.
Absent any device that can read Netanyahu’s mind, all that we have to go by are his recent words and actions, and his recent words and actions indicate a man who seems serious about the diplomatic process.
Yet the skepticism persists, skepticism born of a deep distrust that many in the world harbor toward him, distrust left over from his first term.
Congressman Howard Berman (D-California), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, alluded to this Tuesday during a speech at an Americans for Peace Now luncheon in California.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu and his colleagues are the ones who have taken the difficult decisions, and for this they deserve more credit than they get,” he told the organization, not exactly known for its Bibi boosterism. “In my view, Netanyahu has demonstrated greater maturity and pragmatism during this, his second prime ministry, than he did in the 1990s. I believe he well understands intellectually what peace requires, and he wants to be a peacemaker.”
Nevertheless, the burden of proof – as evidenced by the conversation with the EU diplomat – will remain on Netanyahu. Or, as she said, “What does he really want?”
ONE OF the main differences between Netanyahu’s second term in office and his first is that he gives interviews much less frequently. While in 1998 he seemed to be interviewed on the radio and on television every Monday and Thursday, this time around his appearances are much less frequent. As such, we know far fewer details about what he is thinking, about where he wants to go.
Still, over the course of the last 10 months, in various speeches, interviews and press conferences, he has given an indication of what can be called Netanyahu’s parameters. The most important speech, of course, was his speech in May at Bar-Ilan University, in which he spoke generally of a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognized Israel as a Jewish state living side by side with it. These were broad strokes, but the details were left vague. Over the last two weeks he has begun to define just a bit more about what that means.
For instance, in May, Netanyahu said that “any area in Palestinian hands has to be demilitarized, with solid security measures. Without this condition, there is a real fear that there will be an armed Palestinian state which will become a terrorist base against Israel, as happened in Gaza. We do not want missiles on Petah Tikva, or Grads on Ben-Gurion International Airport.
“This is why we are now asking our friends in the international community, headed by the United States, for what is necessary for our security – that in any peace agreement, the Palestinian area must be demilitarized. No army, no control of air space. Real effective measures to prevent arms coming in, not what’s going on now in Gaza.”
That was the outline. But how exactly do you do that? How do you ensure that a Palestinian state remain demilitarized? Logistically, how does that all work?
Ten days ago he gave his first public indication of what he meant when – at a press conference with foreign journalists in Jerusalem – he said: “In the case of a future settlement with the Palestinians, this will require an Israeli presence on the eastern side of a prospective Palestinian state.”
Netanyahu didn’t say how this would be done, or in what format, but he laid down a principle that he will obviously take with him to the negotiations: An Israeli presence on the eastern border of a future Palestinian state, presumably along the Jordan River.
It’s not clear whether he has in mind an IDF presence, or some other type of Israeli force, or whether it will work together with a possible multilateral force, or whether this would necessitate holding on to the Jordan Valley settlements. But, he made plain, Israel will be present somehow on its future neighbor’s eastern border.
During the Bar-Ilan speech the prime minister talked about that Palestinian state, but did not define borders. This week he started to do that, saying unequivocally during a pre-Tu Bishvat tree planting ceremony in Gush Etzion (he also attended one in Ma’aleh Adumim and said he would also soon be planting a tree in Ariel) that by planting the trees, he was sending “a clear message that we are here. We will stay here. We are planning and we are building.” Gush Etzion, Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel, he said, were an “indisputable part of Israel forever. This is an idea that is accepted by the majority of Israelis.”
That Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion will remain a part of Israel could be termed no-brainers, positions widely supported by the public and all previous governments, but Ariel – which extends further east into the West bank than the other blocks – is more controversial. In fact, the US and Israel discussed in August whether it should be included in the mix of settlement blocks that would be retained.
This week the government laid down its marker on the matter. Defense Minister Ehud Barak went even further than Netanyahu, adding Givat Ze’ev, Betar Illit and Modi’in Illit to the list of blocks during a speech at Bar-Ilan University this week.
On other core issues – such as refugees and Jerusalem – Netanyahu has also, in various speeches and interviews, given a rough indication of direction, with the details, obviously, to be filled in during talks.
Regarding refugees, he has never – as Olmert did – indicated any willingness to take in any number of Palestinian refuges, even a token number as a “humanitarian” gesture to enable family reunification. Instead, at Bar-Ilan he set his parameters.
“We need a clear agreement to solve the Palestinian refugee problem outside of the borders of the State of Israel,” he said. “For it is clear to all that the demand to settle the Palestinian refugees inside of Israel contradicts the continued existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. We must solve the problem of the Arab refugees. And I believe that it is possible to solve it.”
As to how this can be done, he gave a hint at massive international financial help, or as he put it, “goodwill and international investment” to “solve this humanitarian problem once and for all.” In other words, the international community – presumably with massive Israeli involvement – will have to step up and provide billions of dollars to finally settle the refugees either in the lands where they are located, or in the new Palestinian state.
And as far as Jerusalem, Netanyahu continues to state that it will remain the united, undivided capital of Israel. Yet, at the same time, he does express a willingness to talk about it – and all other issues – at the negotiating table.
One presumes that if you are willing to talk about certain matters, there is what to talk about it. His willingness to talk about Jerusalem, by the way, contravenes the Likud platform, last updated in 2006, which stated explicitly that “Israel will not conduct any negotiations on Jerusalem.”
But a willingness to talk about Jerusalem – Netanyahu has said that Israel will come with its position, and the Palestinians will come with theirs – does not necessarily mean a willingness to divide the city. And when it comes to the heart of Jerusalem – the Temple Mount and the Old City – Netanyahu has shown no indication that, like his predecessor, he would be willing to share sovereignty.
While Olmert said in a May interview with Newsweek that he agreed with Abbas that the “holy basin” in Jerusalem, an area including the Old City and its surroundings, would be under no sovereignty at all and administered by a consortium of Saudis, Jordanians, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans, Netanyahu refuses even to use this terminology. He has doggedly refused to use the term “holy basin,” saying in private conversations that this detracts from the Jewish historical claim to the site, and that the holiness of that “basin” stems from the very fact of the existence there in antiquity of the Jewish Temple.
The question being asked in the Prime Minister’s Office, however, is one very different from that asked by the European diplomat over coffee. The question there is not whether Netanyahu wants peace, but rather whether Abbas has made the strategic decision to enter into talks that would, of necessity, lead to a compromise on some of the core Palestinian positions. And on this, the jury is still very much out.