Is Netanyahu finally ready to make moves of historic dimensions?

Is the prime minister merely jockeying to stay in power, or is he, as his confidants insist, ready to do more.

Netanyahu and Liberman (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
Netanyahu and Liberman
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
IMMEDIATELY AFTER Avigdor Liberman’s swearing in as Israel’s new defense minister in late May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the hitherto hawkish Yisrael Beytenu leader took pains to show the world just how dedicated they are to Middle East peacemaking and a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
“I am committed to achieving peace with our neighbors the Palestinians and with all our neighbors,” Netanyahu insisted, intimating that the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which promises normalization with the Arab world in the event of peace with the Palestinians, could be the basis for a major regional peace move. “We are ready to negotiate with the Arab states on updating the initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes that have taken place in our region since 2002, but preserves the agreed goal of two states for two peoples,” he declared.
Taking his cue from Netanyahu, Liberman praised the remarkable speech in Asyut in mid-May in which Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made an unprecedented reaching out to Israel and the Israeli people.
“I think al-Sisi made a very important speech which creates a genuine opportunity and we must try to take up the challenge,” Liberman echoed. The next day at his induction ceremony at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, he went further. Deliberately using religious Jewish settler terminology, he argued that in the event of a clash between the “integrity of the land” and the “unity of the people,” the unity of the people takes precedence – implying that land can and should be surrendered for peace.
Israeli officials insist that these statements should be taken seriously. They were not made in a vacuum, they say, but as part of a major regional peace push led by Sisi and former Quartet (US, EU, UN and Russia) Middle East envoy Tony Blair. The idea is to convene a regional conference in Cairo to kick-start Israeli-Palestinian peace talks with a regional dimension that could help the Palestinians be more flexible on sensitive issues like Jerusalem and refugees, and offer Israel the glittering prize of peace and normalization with virtually the entire Arab world if the talks with the Palestinians succeed.
Initially, Netanyahu wanted Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog in his coalition as foreign minister at the very least to give his pursuit of the Sisi-Blair opening a degree of credibility. When he brought Liberman in instead, he told the strongman Yisrael Beytenu leader that, given the regional peace moves, he would have to play the moderate if he wanted the defense portfolio.
Netanyahu then phoned Sisi to tell him that Liberman was more than ready to go along and would take the same clear two-state line Herzog would have done.
All this begs the key question: Is Netanyahu serious about peacemaking, or are the peace protestations merely an attempt to gain international sanction for continued rejectionism? Is he really interested in a two-state solution or merely out to create a perception of reality through which he can credibly blame the Palestinians for failing to achieve it? In other words, does the talk of regional peace herald change of historical magnitude as Sisi believes it might or is it just one more outpouring of sound and fury signifying not very much? That Netanyahu and Liberman have been inveterate hawks does not necessarily rule them out as peacemakers. Ariel Sharon, the great settlement builder, was the last person many thought would withdraw unilaterally from Gaza.
But there is a difference.
Once Sharon made the decision to pull out, serious preparatory work began. The National Security Council and the IDF drew up detailed plans for evacuation and a special administration was set up to deal with evacuees. Outraged Likud dissidents united as a group against their leader. There was also a letter from US President George W.
Bush implying that, having withdrawn from Gaza, Israel would be able to keep certain West Bank settlements in a final peace deal.
Observers early on had all the evidence they needed to conclude that Sharon was serious.
That is not the case with Netanyahu. In the seven years since he committed himself to the two-state solution in his June 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, no lasting progress has been made despite successive American attempts to mediate. Netanyahu has launched no initiatives of his own and there are no tell-tale signs on the ground.
Indeed, Netanyahu’s peacemaking record to date is abysmal.
When he first came to power in the mid- 1990s, he tried to reverse the Oslo process.
In 2005, he resigned as finance minister over the Gaza disengagement. Since his Bar Ilan speech his tactic has been to proclaim support for the two-state solution, but to set impossible conditions for its achievement.
In mid-2011, he clashed publicly with US President Barack Obama over the longagreed principle of borders based on the 1967 lines with land swaps. He repudiates the notion of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, insists on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and demands an Israeli military presence in the West Bank after peace is achieved – all conditions no Palestinian leadership is likely to accept.
His call for talks without preconditions is really a thinly veiled call for talks without terms of reference – rendering the exercise almost certainly futile. The reason he gives for rejecting the current French peace initiative is that it provides the Palestinians with an excuse to avoid direct talks with Israel.
One of the real reasons is that down the road it seeks to create terms of reference and a timetable for serious reengagement of the two parties.
The collapse in April 2014 of the peace mission led by US Secretary of State John Kerry also came at the terms of reference stage. True, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was not happy with what was on the table. But it was Netanyahu’s failure to carry out a fourth promised Palestinian prisoner release on time that triggered the events that brought the Kerry process down.
As for the Arab Peace Initiative, Netanyahu made positive reference to it as far back as 2009. But he never did anything about adopting it as a basis for negotiation. Formally, he still hasn’t. And his talk of amendments in the light of what has happened in the region since 2002 refers mainly to Israel not giving back the Golan Heights and maintaining an IDF presence in the West Bank as a security buffer against Islamic extremists. How this goes down in Cairo remains to be seen.
In August 2014, after Operation Protective Edge, there was talk of a wide-ranging regional effort similar at least in form to what is being proposed now. The big idea then was based on reconstruction in Gaza in return for a long term ceasefire that could form the basis of a wider Israeli-Palestinian peace. With a friendly Egypt, the US and EU on board, Netanyahu had a chance to make a major regional peace move. Nothing came of it.
Liberman’s peace record is also somewhat checkered.
In May 2004, he announced his “Populated Area Exchange Plan,” based on two states for two peoples and a land swap along the 1967 lines. Israel would annex the settlements in the large settlement blocs, and the Palestinians would get the “Triangle” along the border in north-central Israel with its Israeli Arab residents.
The plan was criticized and its legality challenged for putting Israeli citizens, who by and large wanted to remain in Israel, on the Palestinian side of the border. But, importantly, it fully accepted the principle of two states for two peoples – with as many Israelis as possible on the Israeli side of the border and as many Palestinian/Israeli Arabs as possible on the Palestinian side.
Nevertheless, the mercurial Liberman resigned as minister of strategic affairs in January 2008 over the Olmert government’s talks with the Palestinians after an American- hosted summit in Annapolis the previous November. “Negotiations on the basis of land for peace are a critical mistake…and will destroy us,” he declared at the time.
A year later, however, in a letter to the New York-based “Jewish Week,” Liberman wrote that he had changed his mind and now (again) supported the two-state solution. The letter was written ahead of Liberman’s appointment as foreign minister in a Netanyahu-led government and a few months before Netanyahu’s conciliatory Bar-Ilan speech – circumstances very similar to the current defense portfolio/peace talk syndrome.
On the positive side of the two-state ledger, Netanyahu is still keeping the foreign affairs portfolio open for Herzog, implying major historic moves and decisions in the offing. He has also appointed Tsachi Hanegbi, one of the few Likud leaders who back the two-state solution, as minister in the prime minister’s office with a foreign affairs and defense mandate.
If there is to be movement, Netanyahu prefers that it be through the regional Sisi-Blair initiative. He seems to be pinning his hopes on the Arab states forcing the Palestinians to negotiate on Israel’s terms. Genuine progress, however, is unlikely unless Israel makes major concessions too. And if Netanyahu is bluffing and does not intend to offer any serious quid pro quo he risks a dangerous fallout with his Arab partners.
ON THE other hand, he is adamantly opposed to the French initiative because, despite the watered-down resolution passed after an early June meeting of European and other foreign ministers and officials in Paris, he sees its ongoing working committees crafting terms of reference he will find difficult to accept, followed up by blaming Israel for the ensuing impasse and finally, worse, attempting to impose a settlement.
He prefers moving with Arab states which share security interests with Israel and have leverage on the Palestinians over Europeans and other international players who take a more morals-based, anti-occupation approach.
Whether or not Netanyahu intends to make serious moves toward a two-state solution, he is already under enormous pressure to do so.
On the international front, besides the French move, the Quartet is expected to issue a paper soon highly critical of Israel’s settlement building and destruction of Palestinian homes and calling for constructive steps by both sides toward renewed dialogue for two states. Moreover, if the situation remains deadlocked, Netanyahu fears US President Barack Obama, freed of political constraints after the November presidential election, may launch an initiative of his own. This could take the form of a UN Security Council Resolution incorporating American/French terms of reference, a timetable and the Arab Peace Initiative, putting Israel on the spot. Moreover, American officials warn it could come earlier, perhaps even in the run-up to the next UN General Assembly meeting in September.
Israel finds itself in a tightening diplomatic vise – pressure exerted by the Sisi-Blair initiative on one side and mounting international pressure on the other, both pressing for movement toward a two-state solution before it is too late.
Netanyahu could exploit the opportunity this provides to achieve the two-state solution Israel so desperately needs; or he could use more fancy footwork to avoid it.
His current strategy is to move along with the Arab states and thereby ward off the growing international pressure. But this can only work for so long if he is not really serious about the peace-making.
The political irony is that given the current composition of the Knesset, Netanyahu could easily push through a two-state deal with the Palestinians. Close to a hundred of the 120-member Knesset would support him, with only Bayit Yehudi and perhaps as many as half his own Likud faction opposed.
But to ensure his survival after the peace vote, he needs the Zionist Union in the coalition.
That could be why he is keeping government portfolios open for them. Or perhaps it is just to give the impression of being serious, enabling him to wing it until the next more immediate threat to his government comes along.
One sign of Netanyahu’s seriousness will be if the Zionist Union does join the government after all. Its leaders insist on two conditions: that Netanyahu not only talk peace, but that he jettison the far right-wing Bayit Yehudi and make concrete peace moves.
All of which goes back to the Netanyahu enigma: Is he merely jockeying to stay in power, doing what he invariably does, whatever he thinks he has to survive – or is he, after ten years as prime minister, finally preparing to do something of historic dimensions as his closest confidants insist he is? Dubbed by Likud admirers, “the magician,” he has played the peacemaker with apparent conviction before, only to stun hopeful onlookers, time and again, with a well-timed sleight of hand.
The onus is on him to prove that this time he really means business.