Diplomacy: The shared view from the top

Once his main detractor, Netanyahu is starting to sound – and even to act – increasingly like Sharon.

November 26, 2010 15:23
The Jerusalem Post

Netanyahu Sharon 311. (photo credit: AP/Bloomberg)


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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 Sharon.

“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.”

Sound familiar? 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 him.

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 different prism.

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 responsibility.

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 Gaza.

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 discussion.

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 own.

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 expected.

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.

Negotiate 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 Sharon.

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 Israel.”

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 twofold.

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 the man.

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