Washington Watch: What does Bibi really want?

Many believe Netanyahu is capable of making historic compromises, but he sees no reason to do so right now.

November 17, 2010 23:04
4 minute read.
Bibi Netanyahu and Sec. of State Hillary Clinton

bibi and hillary_311. (photo credit: (Mary Altaffer/AP))

What does Bibi really want? That’s the question many in Israel are asking on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s return from his latest American trip. I’ve been hearing it from diplomats, think tankers, pundits and ordinary people, and they all seem puzzled.

Does he really want peace with the Palestinians, as he says, or is that just for public consumption?

Bibi appears to have worked out an agreement with the Obama administration for a nonrenewable 90-day settlement freeze in exchange for hefty political and financial benefits, but no one here expects it can lead to an early agreement on borders, the first goal, in the next round of talks.

Already the Palestinians are grousing that the freeze excludes Jerusalem and must be permanent. There is no indication Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will go along or, as in the previous freeze, drag his feet until the last moment before entering talks and then walk out because it wasn’t renewed.

Bibi has made peace with Washington, which is a higher priority than any agreement with the Palestinians. But how badly does he want peace with them?

He drove a hard bargain with the Obama administration – we don’t yet know many details – but are he and Abbas ready to make the tough decisions that peace will require? Or are we in for more drawn out talks and diversions over issues like settlements rather than substantive questions like borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees and water?

Some here feel Bibi sees Abbas as his insurance policy, an indecisive leader of a deeply divided movement who can be more adept at finding excuses than opportunities, a trait Bibi shares.

To the extent – and it seems diminishing – that Israelis are talking about the peace process, many tell me that they believe he is capable of making the historic breakthrough, but he sees no reason to do so right now.

After watching his performance in New Orleans at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, there’s a growing feeling that Bibi’s just biding his time until there is a new American president who doesn’t put Israeli-Palestinian peace high on his agenda.

George W. Bush is remembered fondly because although he was the first American president to declare Palestinian statehood an American goal, he was all talk and no action. A lot like Bibi, who talks a good game but isn’t that anxious to play.

THAT’S ANOTHER reason Barack Obama remains unpopular in what one Israeli called “fly-over territory.” Obama may have increased security assistance, provided weapons systems that Bush wouldn’t and keeps upping his offers of diplomatic and security backing, but he has been unable to convince many in Israel that he really cares about them.

“He may be strongly supportive intellectually, but he hasn’t got it in his kishkes,” a friend complained.

Part of Obama’s unpopularity is the result of an intense campaign waged by Republicans to brand him the Muslim Manchurian candidate and an anti-Semite as well as some guerrilla warfare by Netanyahu’s allies to poison the well, but most of it is the president’s own fault.

He has flown over Israel many times and made several trips, as recently as last week, to bolster ties with the Muslim world, but he hasn’t found time to stop in Israel even once.

One reason his supporters give is that he doesn’t want to bolster Netanyahu’s standing. That doesn’t wash. Netanyahu remains popular and has no real challenger from any direction, but more importantly the American president can easily go over the head of any prime minister and talk directly to the Israeli people. He can use the Knesset podium, media interviews and public appearances to explain his views and convince the public that he cares about them and deserves their trust.

The trip is long overdue and the more Obama delays, the more damage he does to his efforts to broker peace.

Obama has other problems as well. Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu shares his enthusiasm for the peace process. What’s more, the status quo for both isn’t all that bad.

“We already have peace,” several friends told me. “There are no buses exploding in Tel Aviv and the shops are busy and the cafes are full on Rehov Dizengoff.”

It’s a familiar theme, even among those who say they’re in the peace camp. The PA security forces, with US training, are doing a good job of maintaining order in the West Bank, the Gaza blockade by Israel and Egypt is keeping out the suicide bombers and the economies of Israel and the West Bank are doing well. The Palestinians don’t have to recognize Israel or deal with Hamas, so why stir it all up by arguing over issues neither side is ready to do anything serious about?

There are many questions as to what Bibi really wants, but the consensus seems to be that he is playing a waiting game – waiting for Obama to go or just give up.

Bibi may be capable of making historic compromises but not any time soon because, with the Palestinians so deeply divided, there is no ready partner, he doesn’t trust Obama, he sees no urgency and right now he couldn’t sell it to the Israeli people.

Meanwhile, Bibi will go through the motions of declaring his undying desire for peace if only the other side is as flexible and willing as he is.

But what Bibi really wants, said a friend and former colleague of his, is doing whatever it takes to get reelected.


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