Israeli politics: Much ado about nothing

Diplomatic stalemate doesn’t keep politicians from pretending dramatic decisions need to be made soon.

Avi Gabbay, the leader of Israel's centre-left Labour party, delivers his victory speech after winning the Labour party primary runoff, at an event in Tel Aviv, Israel July 10, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Avi Gabbay, the leader of Israel's centre-left Labour party, delivers his victory speech after winning the Labour party primary runoff, at an event in Tel Aviv, Israel July 10, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Reading the papers, listening to the radio, and watching the television news this week, one might have assumed that not only were renewed negotiations with the Palestinians just around the corner, but in fact a deal was sitting on the table waiting to be grabbed.
How else to explain the energy and time devoted to Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay’s pronouncement that he does not think settlements should be uprooted? “There is no reason to evacuate settlements in a peace agreement,” the head of the center-Left camp said in a Channel 2 interview aired Monday night.
“If there is peace, then why evacuate? The dynamics of peacemaking that would require evacuation may not actually be correct. In a peace agreement, solutions can be found that do not require evacuations.”
That was enough to set the airwaves all in a flutter, with learned critics discussing what he meant and why he said it now, and what this bodes for the future of the “peace camp.”
Gabbay’s comments sparked a spirited and passionate debate about whether in a final agreement with the Palestinians every Jew beyond the borders of what may become a Palestinian state would need to be removed, or whether a future state of Palestine could tolerate a significant Jewish minority, just as the State of Israel has a significant Arab minority.
While this debate is very interesting, it is completely theoretical: It is Israelis engaging in one of their favorite pastimes, debating among themselves, comforted by the idea that at least they are sorting everything out.
This is a phenomenon that repeats itself from time to time. For instance, back in July, following the terrorist attack on the Temple Mount that killed two border policemen and led to days of tension and rioting, there was a long public debate on whether or not metal detectors installed there as a result of the attacks should be removed.
The debate was loud and angry and – of course – passionate. The public nature of the debate also created the impression that if the metal detectors were just removed, everything would work itself out and peace would return to the alleyways of the Old City.
Of course, that is not the way things turned out.
The metal detectors were removed, but Muslim worshipers still refused to enter the Temple Mount compound, demanding the removal of security cameras as well. The debate was decided inside Israel, but reality did not conform to our decision.
We saw this again in 2011, after the release of what was known at the time as the “Palestine Papers” – leaked documents from the office of PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations held from 1999-2000.
What those documents showed was that decisions Israelis made among themselves – such as the notion that the large settlements blocs would remain a part of Israel in any future agreement – were not in any way accepted by the other side.
For years there has been a mantra here that when it comes to a final agreement, “everyone knows what a final accord will look like.” When the Left uses this line, it generally refers to an agreement based upon a two-state solution, with Jewish Jerusalem in Israeli hands, Arab Jerusalem in Palestinian hands, some kind of international cooperation on the “Holy Basin” and the large settlement blocs under Israeli control in return for land swaps elsewhere.
However, the Palestine Papers revealed that not everyone knows that this is what the solution would look like. First and foremost, the Palestinians don’t know it, and those documents showed the degree to which they were adamant in not ceding the major settlement blocs, such as Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel.
Currently, the question about whether settlements will need to be evacuated – the issue Gabbay waded into – is purely academic. We are nowhere near those types of discussions.
His comments, therefore, have little relevancy in the real world. Where they do have traction, however, is in the political universe, with Gabbay – who two days earlier caused a smaller uproar when he said that his party would not join a coalition with the Arab Joint List – obviously taking a page out of Yair Lapid’s playbook and tacking to the right.
While Gabbay’s comments in no way reflect anything that is taking place on the ground between Israel and the Palestinians, and while his words have no significance at all on non-existent negotiations, they do reflect what he seems to feel is the majority opinion in the country at the moment.
It was not toward non-existent Israeli or Palestinian negotiating teams that Gabby’s comments were aimed, but rather – as Kan’s veteran political analyst Hanan Kristal noted this week – toward two Israeli audiences: one fairly large and one an audience of only a single person.
The large audience is what Kristal said are some 150,000 soft-Right voters, either supporters of the Likud, Kulanu or Yesh Atid, who could conceivably switch allegiances to a center-left party less strident in its anti-settlement rhetoric.
Gabby said on Saturday that his party, which won 24 seats in the last election, would have to win 27 the next time around to form a government. At some 34,000 seats per mandate, which was the case in the last election, this means he will need to move over to his side of the ledger some 100,000 voters from the Right and center-Right.
The other audience for whom Gabbay aimed his words was Moshe Ya’alon, the former Likud defense minister whom Gabbay would love to lure to his team, to adorn his party with a well respected former chief of staff who would bring badly needed security credentials. This type of rhetoric can’t hurt those efforts.
Gabbay, it should be recalled, quit Kulanu and gave up his seat as environment protection minister in the Netanyahu government after the prime minister forced Ya’alon out last year in favor of Avigdor Liberman. Ya’alon and Gabbay met in August and were reported, rather amorphously, of having discussed somehow working together in the future.
Just as Gabbay’s comment about not evacuating settlements was dictated more by politics than anything happening on the ground, so too was the security cabinet’s decision following the recent Hamas-Fatah reconciliation pact not to negotiate with a Palestinian government comprising a still-armed Hamas.
On Tuesday, following two days of consultations on the matter, the security cabinet issued a statement saying that Israel “will not conduct diplomatic negotiations with a Palestinian government that relies on Hamas” unless that organization fundamentally changed its stripes and gives up terrorism, recognizes Israel, accepts previous agreements, severs its relations with Iran, and returns the two Israeli citizens and the bodies of two soldiers that it is holding in Gaza.
Reading this decision, one would think that negotiations were on the horizon; but they are not even close, with the Americans focusing on brokering much smaller Israeli-Palestinian agreements on matters like water and electricity, rather than on a big, dramatic, sweeping peace agreement.
Not only are negotiations nowhere close to beginning, but there is also no guarantee – in fact, no great likelihood – that the Hamas-Fatah pact would even last.
Instead, there is widespread expectation in Jerusalem that – based on previous experience – the pact will fall apart when Hamas refuses to give up its arms.
So why did the security cabinet need to convene and issue such a statement? Simple: politics.
Already last Thursday, Bayit Yehudi head Education Minister Naftali Bennett demand that Israel sever ties with the Palestinian Authority as a result of the reconciliation.
“Mahmoud Abbas’ joining with Hamas turns the Palestinian Authority into a terrorist authority,” he said. “Israel must sever any connection to this terrorist authority.”
Bennett said that any Israeli cooperation with Abbas would be tantamount to cooperation with Hamas, and that this needs to be stressed “ahead of expected international pressure to resume negotiations in light of the Palestinian agreement.”
With this statement, Bennett threw down the gauntlet to Netanyahu.
Because just as Gabbay is trying to poach soft-Right voters from the Likud, Bennett is aiming for the party’s hard Right. The prime minister, who up until then had issued only tepid responses to the Hamas-Fatah move, could not afford to be outflanked on his right on this issue by Bennett.
Therefore, five days after Bennett issued his challenge, the security cabinet released its statement – not because of anything objectively happening on the ground, but because this is what the political considerations demanded.
In other words, there is reality, and there is politics. And what became evident this week is that the two do not necessarily intersect.