Crunch Time for Netanyahu

The Netanyahu government’s failure to develop a convincing Palestinian approach threatens to take on the dimensions of a major strategic challenge and increasing U.S. pressure.

Netanyahu looking over shoulder 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Netanyahu looking over shoulder 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When Interior Ministry officials picked a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in mid-March to announce controversial new building plans in Jerusalem, the American expectation was that heads would roll.
But although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized profusely for the timing of the announcement, he did not freeze or retract the project for 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood on the Arab side of the 1967 Green Line, much less fire anyone for the diplomatic gaffe.
At the height of the crisis in Israel-U.S. relations sparked by the incident, U.S. President Barack Obama fingered the man he saw as the chief culprit – hawkish Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Netanyahu, however, took no serious action against Yishai, prompting a senior American official to remark that Netanyahu’s strategic alliance with Shas was apparently more important to him than Israel’s strategic alliance with the U.S.
The official’s wry comment perfectly encapsulated Netanyahu’s dilemma. Just as he did during his first term as prime minister from 1996-1999, Netanyahu has spent the year since his return to office last March navigating between the recalcitrant right that brought him to power and U.S. pressure for progress in peacemaking with the Palestinians. The Ramat Shlomo crisis highlighted the prime minister’s stark choices: Continued settlement building, which could jeopardize U.S. support, or a genuine effort towards a two-state solution with the Palestinians, which would cost him his right wing.
Settlement building was only the symptom. The deeper confrontation was over borders – a test of the degree of Israel’s readiness under Netanyahu to withdraw to lines based on the 1967 borders as part of a two-state settlement with the Palestinians. This was further complicated by another underlying dilemma: how far to go in accepting the U.S. lead on the Palestinian track in order to facilitate Washington’s handling of the Iranian nuclear threat. In other words, to what extent to cement the so-called “grand bargain” in which Israel makes concessions on the Palestinian track, enhancing America’s regional standing, in return for which the U.S. helps to assuage the existential threat to Israel from Iran.
All this was in the air when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Netanyahu to deliver a harsh 43-minute dressing down for the way Israel had embarrassed the vice president. She and Obama decided to exploit the Ramat Shlomo contretemps to pressure Netanyahu to move closer to their side of the America-versus-Israeli-right-wing equation, and in the angry phone conversation, the secretary made a number of tough demands: that Netanyahu rescind the Ramat Shlomo building permit, make goodwill gestures to the Palestinians ahead of the Israeli-Palestinian indirect “proximity” talks the Americans have been working for months to set up and agree to discuss all core issues – borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees – in those talks.
A few days later, after consulting with his right-wing partners, Netanyahu met her half-way. He would not cancel the Ramat Shlomo project, which anyway was only due to start two or three years down the road, but he would coordinate any new building across the Green Line in Jerusalem with the Americans and ensure that there would be no more surprise announcements of new plans. And to set the proximity talks off on a better footing, Israel would make goodwill gestures to the Palestinians and agree to discuss core issues – as long as final agreements were reached in direct talks between the parties.
The off-again on-again proximity talks, announced during the Biden visit but then called off by the Palestinians in the wake of the Ramat Shlomo furor, are now apparently back on track and due to start in early April. No one expects much progress. The talks are set to last for four months, after which the Americans say they will point fingers. Indeed, from the outset, both Israelis and Palestinians saw the proximity talks as no more than an elaborate blame game, with the U.S. as sole judge and jury. Which makes the Ramat Shlomo gaffe even worse from Netanyahu’s point of view: It means he has already handed Round 1 in the blame game to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on a platter.
Further down the road, on the strategic level, the Palestinians, leery of getting anything from the Netanyahu government, hope to have the Americans in their corner delivering statehood on terms they can accept. For Israel, therefore, close understanding with the Obama Administration remains crucial for maintaining its interests in the overall Palestinian context. For their part, the Americans hope to use the fear of blame to prod the parties into going further than they might otherwise have done.
But they need to get the balance right. The challenge is to foster a Palestinian belief that the U.S. will not automatically be in Israel’s corner, but without creating a perception that it is abandoning its ally, which would encourage violence against Israel, perhaps even on a regional scale. Therefore, even when the Ramat Shlomo showdown was at its height, U.S. officials from Obama down emphasized the rock solid nature of the strategic relationship with Israel, and America’s unqualified commitment to Israel’s security.
Still, during the Ramat Shlomo crisis, there were some ominous signs. In one particularly tense moment, Biden reportedly charged that Israeli actions like settlement building, which inflame Arab opinion, endanger the lives of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Then, in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 16, General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, listed insufficient progress towards a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace as one of the reasons for widespread regional hostility towards America. “The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel,” Petraeus wrote. “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the… [region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas,” he continued.
Some Israeli commentators took this as meaning that Israel was becoming more of a liability than an asset in the eyes of top American strategists. Others, however, noted that Petraeus was blaming the conflict, not Israel, for America’s difficulties, and that the message to Israel was to be more helpful in solving it. In their view, Washington’s problem is not with Israel as a strategic ally, but with the Netanyahu government’s less than forthcoming Palestinian policies.
Indeed, even if the crisis is over for now, the Netanyahu government’s failure to develop a convincing Palestinian approach threatens to take on the dimensions of a major strategic challenge. It threatens to put pressure on Israel-U.S. ties and impair Israel-U.S. cooperation on Iran; it adds fuel to the fire of international campaigns to delegitimize Israel, which would become far more dangerous were Israel to lose its American diplomatic umbrella; it is solidifying an increasingly violent one-state reality on the ground and feeding into Palestinian calls for a one-state solution.
Indeed, some leading Israeli experts on Palestinian affairs maintain that time for a two-state solution is running out and that the one-state nightmare for Israelis and Palestinians alike is rapidly approaching. They hold that the crisis with America underlines the need for brave leadership and new out-of-the-box thinking to break the impasse before it is too late.
The broader strategic problem has been exacerbated by growing American frustration with Netanyahu personally. According to Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul in New York, the Americans feel that the prime minister has been toying with them for a year, and their strong reaction to the Ramat Shlomo building announcement was meant to signal that enough is enough.
Pinkas, who briefly advised Netanyahu on American affairs before a much publicized falling out over retraction of a commitment to name him Israel’s U.N. ambassador, maintains that the Americans are tired of Netanyahu’s contradictory promises to them and to his right wing. “To the Americans he says moratorium on settlement construction and to one of his right-wing Knesset members he says come September we will be building again. He has been saying too many contradictory things to too many people. And the Americans are now saying that that game is over,” he tells The Report.
Worse: According to Pinkas, what incensed the Americans above all over Ramat Shlomo was the fact that Netanyahu had given them a specific undertaking not to go public with new projects. “They are saying that between the announcement of the construction moratorium in November and the decision to launch proximity talks in March, there was a verbal understanding on this between Netanyahu and U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell. The gist of it was this: The Americans would show tacit understanding for the fact that Netanyahu could not include Jerusalem in the moratorium and would look the other way as long as Israel did not make provocative public moves there. So they saw the Ramat Shlomo announcement as a fundamental breach of trust,” he maintains.
As to the proximity talks, Pinkas says that although the Americans do not expect much to come out of them, they do want a process, a signal to the region that they are making things happen, and they hope against hope that maybe the fact that the parties are exchanging ideas may just lead to something.
The Palestinians, however, are playing a bigger game. According to Pinkas, what they want is a process they can depict as a complete failure a year from now, and then put their case to the international community. “They are banking on a failed process further weakening American support for Israel. Then they will go to the U.N. Security Council and ask for a Palestinian state on the 4th of June 1967 lines, and, guess what, the U.S. may not veto this,” Pinkas asserts.
Pinkas also argues that the showdown over Ramat Shlomo could hurt Israeli interests on Iran. He says the breakdown of trust could undermine the level of dialogue and coordination between Israel and the U.S. on Iran’s nuclear weapons’ program. “Any way you look at it, Netanyahu’s actions or non-actions on the Palestinian track are causing a lot of collateral diplomatic damage,” he concludes.
Members of Netanyahu’s policy-making circle are well aware of the potentially damaging consequences of the tensions with the U.S., but they tend to blame Obama rather than Netanyahu for causing them. Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the U.S. appointed by Netanyahu to head an advisory forum on Israel-U.S. relations last June, argues that by being less evenhanded than its immediate predecessors, the Obama Administration could ultimately hurt both Israeli and American interests.
Shoval insists that the main U.S. argument for distancing itself from Israel is based on a misconception, and he takes issue with the view expressed by General Petraeus and others that the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict is undermining America’s regional standing. “Taliban fighters with whom NATO troops are in battle right now would be anti-American even if Israel were to give up Tel Aviv. Their positions have absolutely nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it’s part of an attitude you find among some in Washington, who say ‘solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem’ – when solving means basically putting pressure on Israel – ‘and all the problems the U.S. faces in the broader Middle East will go away,’ in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, you name it, which, of course, is completely false,” he asserts.
Despite these worrying signs, Shoval does not think the strategic relationship is seriously under threat. And although Obama seems to be less Atlanticist and more Islamic-oriented than some of his predecessors – that is, less concerned with Europe and eager to mend fences with the Islamic world – Shoval does not expect relations with Israel to suffer as a result. “There has been no earthquake or paradigm shift,” he says.
On the contrary, he argues that if what Obama wants is serious progress on the Palestinian track, a strong strategic relationship with Israel is a necessary condition.
Because if Israel is to take risks for peace, it needs to know the U.S. will be there for it if things go wrong. “Who can guarantee that a future Palestinian state won’t go the way the Gaza Strip went? Therefore, unless there is a strong relationship with the U.S., which includes support for Israel’s demands for a non-militarized Palestinian state, the chances of making progress on the peace front will be negligible,” he avers.
The same is true on the Iranian front. In Shoval’s view, for Iran to take international sanctions seriously, it must believe that there are other options on the table if they fail. And that entails a perception in Tehran of a strong, coordinated Israel-U.S. strategic alliance. “Otherwise the Iranians will say if America and Israel are not on the same wavelength, we can certainly go on doing what we are doing to develop a nuclear capability,” he contends.
Given the wake-up call from Washington, the question now is how far Netanyahu will be prepared to go along the Palestinian track? The degree of his commitment to and dependence on his right-wing supporters does not augur well. In 2008, Netanyahu invoked a strategic alliance between his Likud party and Shas to prevent Kadima’s Tzipi Livni from forming a government, and then again in 2009 to become prime minister himself. He also owes Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu for backing him, not Livni, for the premiership last year. Not to mention the fact that a majority of his own Likud Knesset faction opposes Palestinian statehood, to which Netanyahu is ostensibly committed.
One of the more outspoken hawks in the Likud faction is deputy Knesset Speaker Danny Danon, the chairman of World Likud. He claims that Netanyahu recently promised him that building in West Bank settlements would resume as soon as the 10-month freeze ended, irrespective of the state of negotiations with the Palestinians at that point. “He told me very clearly that on September 26, we will restart building in Judea and Samaria,” he tells The Report. This commitment was to have been approved in a binding Likud Central Committee resolution in mid-March, at the height of the Ramat Shlomo crisis. Danon says he agreed to postpone the session to give Netanyahu breathing space to deal with the American pressure, but that the debate and vote will be held after the Passover holiday, some time in mid- or late April.
Danon warns that if Netanyahu, nevertheless, made serious moves towards Palestinian statehood, his days as prime minister would be numbered. Not only would he have a fierce Likud rebellion on his hands, he would almost certainly lose his right-wing coalition. But Danon does not expect it to come to that. On the contrary, he claims that Netanyahu’s mindset is no different from that of the potential right-wing rebels.
“It’s not as if he is prepared to pay a price for peace the way former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were. He fully understands that there is no viable Palestinian partner and that what we need now is to manage the conflict and not try to solve it,” he insists. And, if necessary, he suggests Israel “manage” the administration too, through its friends in Congress and in the Jewish and fundamentalist Christian communities, much the way Netanyahu tried to do during his first term when Bill Clinton was president.
For Israelis on the left and in the political center, this is a recipe for disaster – not only in terms of potential conflict with the administration, but also because it would accelerate the slide down the slippery slope towards a one-state Israeli-Palestinian reality, encompassing Israel proper, the West Bank and Gaza, with pressure on Israel to allow one man – one vote and an eventual Palestinian majority or be labeled undemocratic, possibly even by its closest allies.
Preempting this potentially horrendous scenario is the driving force behind some desperate, new out-of-the-box thinking by Israeli and Palestinian advocates of the two-state solution. For example, on the Israeli side, leading TV Arab affairs commentator Ehud Ya’ari, a former Middle East editor at The Report, proposes stopping the one-state slide by creating a two-state reality here and now by granting the Palestinians immediate statehood with temporary borders, preferably along the security barrier, and then negotiating the outstanding core issues on a state-to-state basis. On the Palestinian side, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is assiduously building Palestinian institutions, government services, security forces and the economy, with a target date of mid-2011 for completion of the full apparatus of statehood. Then he intends to appeal to the international community to recognize the Palestinian state in the June 4, 1967 borders.
So far neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leadership has shown much interest in the Ya’ari proposal. But it could become relevant if the Americans decide to take it aboard. And clearly, at the end of the day, the Fayyad plan will also depend to a large extent on American attitudes.
Both plans have inherent difficulties. Menachem Klein, a Bar-Ilan University expert on the Palestinians, observes that Fayyad has no control over a large swathe of the West Bank, known as area C, over which he hopes to impose Palestinian sovereignty. As for the Ya’ari plan, he notes that the Palestinians are against interim solutions in principle because they fear being left in the lurch, without leverage to stop Israel perpetuating the interim situation. And Klein doubts that Ya’ari’s proposal for Israeli and international guarantees of further negotiations in good faith on all the outstanding core issues would satisfy them.
For Klein, however, the problems between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and the Americans, go much deeper. Part of the trouble, he argues, is that Israelis are living in a bubble of self-deception in thinking that the status quo with the Palestinians can be maintained indefinitely. “We should stop fooling ourselves that everything on the ground is fine. Nothing is. We are already in a de facto one-state situation and one day the world is going to turn round to us and say: ‘De facto you have one state and it’s not a democracy,’” he warns.
But Klein doubts whether Israelis will be able to wake up in time. In anew book, “The Shift: Israel and Palestine from Border Conflict toEthnic Struggle,” he argues that the elements of the pro-settler righthave been able to gain a strong foothold within the establishment,making it virtually impossible for the government to take significantsteps towards a two-state solution, because of the large-scaleconfrontation with the settlers it would inevitably entail.
Accordingto Klein, right-wing infiltration of the corridors of power is sopervasive that if and when the showdown over withdrawal from the WestBank comes, the establishment will implode and then have to rebuilditself. “That’s one of the main reasons that the political leadershipis backing away from the showdown. Because it will mean confrontationwith large segments within the establishment itself,” he asserts.
IfKlein is right, Netanyahu, even if he wants to, will not be able tomake the moves Obama wants to see and the clash over Ramat Shlomo willgo down as only a tiny promo for the huge all-in rumble to come.