If you closed your eyes for a minute while listening to what Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu said Sunday to a group of Likud MKs opposed to an additional
90-day settlement moratorium, you could swear you were hearing Ariel
“As prime minister,” Netanyahu said, “I have a responsibility to
see the whole picture and to decide what is good for Israel. That is the
responsibility incumbent upon me, and exactly what I do.”
It should, because this phrase is the twin brother of Sharon’s oft-employed
statement that “what you see from here, you don’t see from there.” Sharon would
pull that maxim out when explaining decisions he was making as prime minister
that seemed so counterintuitive, that seemed to run so deeply against what the
public – based on decades of his comments and actions – expected of
How else, for instance, was he to explain why he – the godfather of
the settlement movement – would uproot some 8,000 settlers from Gaza, except by
saying that sitting in the prime minister’s chair and surveying the immense
array of threats and dangers facing the country, he saw things through a vastly
It’s one thing to sit in the opposition and shout loudly
about how the government should not take the world’s or America’s views into
consideration, but rather do what is good for the country and the rest be
damned, but quite another thing entirely to be the person with ultimate
Which, in short, is what Netanyahu was saying when
talking about seeing the “whole picture.” His basic argument is that accepting a
90-day settlement moratorium in exchange for a package of still undetermined US
“goodies” should not be isolated from everything else – neither from the battle
to stop Iran nor from the struggle against delegitimization.
WHAT IS even
more intriguing to watch is how this is not simply a case of Netanyahu merely
sounding like Sharon, but rather watching how, on a tactical level, over the
last few months he has begun acting like him. His current diplomatic and
political tactics bear a striking resemblance to those of Sharon, even more
interesting considering how much Netanyahu opposed the disengagement from
In 2003, when Sharon first broached it, one of the reasons he did
so was because he felt that the diplomatic process – the road map – had led to a
dead end, and he feared that if he did not take the initiative, others would
introduce their own plans.
So he launched the plan to withdraw from the
Gaza Strip and dramatically changed the parameters of the
Netanyahu is currently facing a situation with many
similarities. He too faces a diplomatic stalemate, has concluded that this is
not in the national interest and apparently fears that if the impasse remains,
there is a real likelihood outside elements will initiate something on their
Getting the world to impose a solution, moreover, seems to be a
cardinal shift in Palestinian tactics.
In 1993, Yasser Arafat, with his
stated goals being the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines
with east Jerusalem as its capital and a return of the refugees, decided to
shift tactics from the terrorism the PLO had employed, and try to achieve his
aims through negotiations. So he conducted negotiations until 2000, when at Camp
David – dealing with a left-leaning prime minister in Ehud Barak – he saw
exactly how far he could go. The maximum a left-wing government could give still
did not meet his minimum requirements.
So what did he do? He launched a
terrorist war, encouraged violence and the blowing up of buses on city streets,
hoping that if he couldn’t get all he wanted through negotiations, perhaps
terrorism would force Israel to cave in.
But it didn’t. The second
intifada failed; Israeli society proved tougher and more resilient than Arafat
Which brings us to the current phase. If you don’t get all that
you want through negotiations, and you don’t get all that you want through
terrorism, you need to do something else – get the world to step in and impose a
solution, which is exactly what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is
trying to do.
This helps explain why Abbas now, unlike in the past, is
making settlement construction the be all and end all of everything. Place
settlements at the center of the conversation and you are both driving a wedge
between Israel and the US, which has never backed the settlement enterprise, and
also ensuring that negotiations won’t begin.
And a lack of negotiations
at this time might not be entirely opposed to Palestinian interests. Because if
there are no negotiations, the world may very well step in, which, as threats to
go to the UN to get international recognition of a Palestinian state indicate,
seems to be exactly what they want.
Netanyahu, no novice at this game,
also realizes this, which is why he wants to return to negotiations, why he is
willing to start without preconditions and why he appears willing to go back on
his pledge against any new settlement construction moratorium.
and you keep the world at bay, at least for the time being. And, he seems to be
calculating, if another 90-day settlement moratorium is the price, it is worth
it, especially if you are also getting some state-of-the-art US military
hardware and can nail down specifically and in writing some political/diplomatic
commitments from Washington.
Which is the stage the diplomatic game is at
right now. And it is here there are some key parallels with
NOTICE, FIRST, that the intensive negotiations are with the US,
not the Palestinians.
Disengagement, too, wasn’t hammered out with the
Palestinians, but with the US.
Experience over the last four decades has
shown that side letters and memoranda of understanding with the US are often
more important than negotiations with the Palestinians or Arab countries in
moving the diplomatic process forward.
There are, meanwhile, voices
currently calling on Netanyahu to do more than just negotiate the rewards from
the US as a result of an extended settlement freeze and actually negotiate with
the US the contours of a final settlement.
The logic behind this thinking
is that if negotiations are not restarted, the US may feel compelled to provide
its own bridging plan, and the government should now be negotiating with the US
over the terms of that plan – for instance insisting on a security presence on
the Jordan River in any future agreement.
Another important parallel is
that Netanyahu – like Sharon – realizes he needs to get something from the US to
make his preferred policy more palatable to the public.
Sharon in 2004
got the famed Bush letter, which in retrospect does not bind the Obama
administration, but which was a tool he waved to convince the public of the
wisdom of leaving Gaza. (That this letter has not bound the Obama administration
has led to a “trust deficit” between Washington and Jerusalem, and is what seems
to have propelled the Netanyahu government into trying to get the US to commit
to writing – and this time spelled out in greater detail – what it will
provide.) Sharon’s position was that while disengagement from Gaza would not
bring peace, the country was getting a dramatic change in American policy that
would make everything worth the risk.
Using similar imagery, Netanyahu
told the Likud MKs that if he gets the understandings he reached with Secretary
of State Hillary Clinton in writing, he will bring it to the security cabinet
and “I am certain the ministers will approve it because that is what is good for
Like Sharon, he is in no hurry to have theoretical discussions
in the cabinet or in his Knesset faction about the pros and cons of extending
the freeze until he has something concrete in hand which will likely change the
contours of the debate.
And until that time, again like Sharon, Netanyahu
is meeting with various coalition partners – especially Shas – trying to line up
their support before taking the package to his own party, and by so doing trying
to isolate the hard core within the Likud.
Ironically this chore will
likely be easier for him than it was for Sharon, and the reason is
First, because the Likud has a couple of political traumas fresh
in its mind: the right wing’s unhappiness with Netanyahu’s concessions to the
Palestinians on Hebron that helped pave the way for Ehud Barak’s election in
1999, and Sharon’s split from the Likud and formation of Kadima following the
disengagement in 2005.
And, secondly, because Netanyahu doesn’t currently
have a challenger within the party who enjoys the same stature he did when he
resisted Sharon in 2005.
Netanyahu may have lost that battle – the
withdrawal from Gaza went through and Sharon split from the party – but his
current handling of the diplomatic process indicates he definitely learned from