Knesset winter session 311.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Since the formal expiration of the building freeze in Judea and Samaria on September 26, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has tried to negotiate a formula that will allow direct talks with the Palestinians to go forward. The Americans and Palestinians have been pressing him to extend the freeze, and while it lasts to reach a deal regarding borders – an issue Netanyahu insists must be deferred until the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and until its security requirements are met.
US President Barack Obama’s offer of American support in return for a freeze extension made it clear that the White House’s idea of security requirements are very different from Israel’s. In effect Netanyahu was being pressured to capitulate on the freeze in order to capitulate again in the actual negotiations.
For two weeks, the prime minister maintained silent regarding his intentions. The silence ended with his opening speech to the Knesset on Monday, when he revealed his position and offered a deal: a limited freeze extension in return for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state. The offer, as anticipated, was quickly rejected in Ramallah.
Netanyahu’s proposal was directed at four different audiences.
1. The White House. The statement was a declaration of independence. Obama’s thumb has been pressing heavily on the scales, tilting America’s position in favor of the Palestinians. The Americans continue to demand that Israel comply with a precondition for talks, freezing building in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s position hitherto has been that negotiations should be conducted without preconditions. In his Knesset speech he rejected the White House’s tilt and said, in effect, that if Israel had to meet preconditions, the Palestinians have to as well.
Netanyahu chose his political ground carefully. Nothing is likely to generate sympathy for Israel’s position on Capitol Hill and within the American Jewish community as insistence that the Palestinians simply acknowledge that Israel is the Jewish state. Their refusal to do so will seem incomprehensible to most Americans.
2. The Arab League. Netanyahu’s statement was a challenge to let the Palestinian issue slide, and no longer allow it to interfere with the quiet alliance between Israel and moderate Arab states now shaping up over Iran. Formally, the Arab League backed the Palestinian position on a freeze, but was notoriously reluctant to back their alternative strategy – a unilateral declaration of independence. The league’s position can be interpreted as not caring whether or not the Palestinian issue is on the road to resolution. This, of course, undermines what is supposed to be one of the Obama administration’s rationales in pressing the Palestinian issue – making up to the Arab world.
3. The Labor Party. Labor’s policy is increasingly vulnerable to ideological purists insisting that the “peace process” continue at all costs. Labor is threatening to leave Netanyahu’s coalition if negotiations break down. Netanyahu’s chosen political ground is even more potent within Israel than on Capitol Hill. If Labor – and Kadima – want to fight an election on the grounds that Israel should not insist on recognition as the Jewish state, they’re welcome to try their luck.
4. Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu said, in effect, “Be damned.” Netanyahu is not generally a confrontational politician. Like most prime ministers, he has to spend an inordinate percentage of his time keeping his coalition together. He bends over backward to find negotiated solutions. To ensure maximum wiggle room, he keeps his mouth shut and plays his cards close to his chest. Someone is always accusing him of lacking courage or principles.
THE BIG difference between Netanyahu today and the Netanyahu who was elected in 1996 is that he seems to have developed an intuition for when he has no choice but to turn around and fight back. One such moment was when Obama manufactured a crisis over building in Jerusalem and dissed Netanyahu in the Oval Office. As he left the White House that day, Netanyahu appeared to have understood instinctively that he couldn’t let himself be cowed. Another such moment appears to have come this week.
Chances are about even that the Labor Party will pull out of Netanyahu’s
coalition – probably around December (budget time), when it can
obfuscate the diplomatic issue on which Netanyahu and the Likud can
craft an electoral victory. Netanyahu can maintain a narrow coalition by
adding the National Union, but it’s far from clear that that’s his best
option. Perhaps his next step is to learn to anticipate a crisis he
cannot avoid and precipitate it – on his own terms and in his own time.
If the country is going to elections, the best time for the prime
minister is ASAP.
The country is going to need a new policy to deal with the Palestinians,
based on the assumption that no peace agreement is likely any time
soon.The writer heads the Israel Policy Center, whose mission includes reinforcing Israel’s character as a Jewish, democratic state.