Editor's Notes: The fog of diplomacy

By keeping this acutely sensitive period of attempted peacemaking under wraps, Netanyahu may believe he is maximizing his chances of securing Israel’s best interests.

netanyahu obama 311 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu obama 311
(photo credit: AP)
“President Abbas,... I see in you a partner for peace. Together, we can lead our people to a historic future that can put an end to claims and to conflict... The people of Israel, and I as their prime minister, are prepared to walk this road and to go a long way, a long way in a short time, to achieve a genuine peace that will bring our people security, prosperity and good neighbors... History has given us a rare opportunity to end the conflict between our peoples.”Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, at the State Department-hosted resumption of direct talks, September 2.
“We should focus on coming up with a long-term intermediate agreement, something that could take a few decades. We need to raise an entire new generation that will have mutual trust and will not be influenced by incitement and extremist messages.”Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, addressing the UN General Assembly, September 28
So which is it? Do we have, as our prime minister told the world a month ago, a true “partner for peace” in the shape of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a man alongside whom we can walk “a long way in a short time” en route to a historic agreement?
Or do what our foreign minister called “the utter lack of confidence between the sides,” and the divisions on “issues such as Jerusalem, recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish People and refugees” render the notion of any such speedy accord thoroughly ridiculous, requiring us instead to prepare for “a few decades” of difficult contacts until the emergence of a genuinely peace-minded “entire new generation.”
If it’s the former, why on earth would Binyamin Netanyahu jeopardize this historic opportunity – a chance to end decades of violence, to finally realize Israel’s dream of normalized relations with its neighbors – for the sake of a limited resumption of building in Judea and Samaria, areas that will largely be transferred to Palestinian sovereignty under the anticipated accord? Why would he not readily accept the US-urged extension of his settlement moratorium for a mere two months’ more?
Why, furthermore, would he allow his own foreign minister to undermine the credibility of his enthusiastic peacemaking overtures and commitments in a landmark address to the community of nations? Why would he not, at the very least, publicly rebuke his foreign minister for delivering so skewed an assessment even if political constraints meant that the minister, with his 15-seat coalition representation, had to be tolerated in his post for a while longer?
But if, however, it’s the latter – if Lieberman’s bleak overview is accurate and recognized as such by Netanyahu – then why is the prime minister misleading his own people and the international community? Why is he raising expectations where they do not reasonably exist? Why, if the Palestinian leadership has not credibly indicated to him a readiness for the establishment of a Palestine truly reconciled with the Jewish state, a Palestine that will not threaten Israel militarily or demographically, is he crowning Abbas as his partner in peace?
THE STARK contrast in the public utterances of our first minister and our first diplomat has left Israel baffled and questioning, but answers come there none.
The prime minister refrains from subjecting himself to media inquiry. And he tells his ministerial colleagues next-to-nothing, either, of the discussions he and his select group of emissaries have been holding with the Palestinians and, as pertinently, with the Americans.
Two weeks ago, in this column, Minister Michael Eitan acknowledged candidly that he and his colleagues know precisely zilch about the conduct of the direct negotiations beyond what they read in the (under-informed) newspapers, and asserted that even members of the inner forum, the supposed decision-making septet, are privy to precious little more information.
A more plaintive cry to the same effect arose in the course of this week after meetings between the prime minister and other cabinet colleagues.
“We are currently in the midst of sensitive diplomatic contacts with the American administration in order to find a solution that will make possible a continuation of the talks,” was all Netanyahu would tell his cabinet on Monday.
The information blackout produces endless speculative reportage and comment, and raises endless more questions.
We hear sketchy reports about ostensible American administration promises and guarantees to encourage an extension of the settlement freeze, and are challenged to distinguish between the credible and the risible.
According to David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, for instance, a draft letter to Netanyahu “sent from President Obama’s desk” contains “a string of assurances to Israel” to encourage the extension of the freeze, and a number of “commitments on issues ranging from current peace and security matters to future weapons deliveries.”
Summarizing the ostensible goodies within, they seem to amount to the promise of a US veto on any problematic Security Council initiatives for the next year, pledges about Washington accepting Israel’s legitimate security needs as regards a Palestinian state, indications of US support for an extended Israeli troop presence in the Jordan Valley, talk of a new US outreach to the Arab states regarding a “regional security architecture,” and boosted US military assistance.
It is hard to understand why such a package might be considered immensely attractive for Israel – given that Capitol Hill would in any case help ensure the necessary UN vetoes, given the failure of US outreach to the Arab world thus far, and given that several of the other pledges and offers are similar to established understandings between Israel and the US. Yes, Israel will need binding guarantees from the US on many aspects of Palestinian statehood. But leveraged as pledges en route to a brief extension of the building freeze? Yet Makovsky, a predecessor in my job who has excellent connections with some in the administration, is plainly a credible source.
Although the White House last week denied that President Obama had sent any such letter, it seems highly likely that draft assurances have indeed been produced. Presumably, there’s a great deal more to the behind-thescenes Israel-US negotiations than has yet met the public eye.
So what else might the US be offering Netanyahu?
Reports on Thursday suggested that the prime minister was seeking to re-bind Washington to the commitments Ariel Sharon thought he had attained from president George W. Bush – including guaranteed US opposition to the notion of a Palestinian refugee right of return, and support for ultimate Israeli annexation of the settlement blocks. That starts to sound more plausible.
Could there also be something related to Iran? If so, it’s unsurprising that’s not being leaked.
And what about the release of Jonathan Pollard? When that notion was made public last month, various government ministers hurried to ridicule it. But it would certainly be what our diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon calls “a game-changer.”
What’s the connection between the imprisoned spy for Israel and a construction ban in disputed West Bank territory? There isn’t one. But there’s also “not a minister in Netanyahu’s government,” notes Keinon, “who would oppose a two-month extension of the settlement freeze in return for Pollard’s freedom.”
And the Obama presidency, so far removed from the administrations that saw Pollard jailed for life and kept there, is certainly more capable than its predecessors of delivering.
BUT AGAIN we come back to the wider conundrums. Why is the Obama administration seeking to cajole Netanyahu into a marginal extension of the building freeze in the first place? What difference will two months’ more talks really make? Are we on the point of a dramatic breakthrough? Are we about to solve the issue of West Bank borders, which would by definition thereby also resolve the question of where Israel can and cannot build?
This stretches belief. After years of failed negotiation, Israel and the Palestinians – the Palestinians, remember, who stayed away from the talks for the first nine months of the freeze – are now almost magically capable of demarcating the lines between Israel and the new Palestine in a matter of weeks? Including the borders of Jerusalem, where the divisions between Israel and the Palestinians on building are the most acute?
If so, incidentally, why would Netanyahu need persuading to maintain the freeze and keep the talks going.
Yet various ostensible experts have this week indicated that the administration is indeed anticipating precisely such a breakthrough.
The alternative is the cynics’ explanation for the twomonth plea: It would take us past the US elections in November, with Netanyahu and Abbas still formally engaged, thus sparing the Obama administration of a glaring foreign policy failure ahead of voting day.
Apply such cynicism to the original 10-month building freeze, moreover, and it makes sense too. Why did Netanyahu agree last September to a 10-month moratorium? Why not six months, or eight months? Why not a nice, round, full year?
Was it, perhaps, because the US anticipated significant progress being made between last November and this September, so that something encouraging could be announced on the eve of those elections? Only then Abbas came along and made a mess of that timetable by refusing to enter the talks until it was far too late, until any prospect of substantive progress had disappeared.
FOR ALL the public’s bafflement, the media’s irritation, and the politicians’ frustration, Netanyahu has every right as prime minister to conduct his negotiations with the Palestinians, and with the Americans, as he sees fit.
Having promised to bring any substantive accord to his elected colleagues for their approval, he is free to choose which ministers and which aides to involve in the process, and who to tell what.
By keeping this acutely sensitive period of attempted peacemaking under wraps, Netanyahu may believe he is maximizing his chances of securing Israel’s best interests.
But the key questions will have to be answered sooner or later, because the stakes are extraordinarily high. Our country is currently breathing relatively freely.
But we fear that this is merely a lull between conflicts. We know that Iran remains hell-bent on our destruction, and that its proxies to our north and south are rearming by the day. We also know that while Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad may be far from the ideal negotiating partners, any kind of dialogue will be impossible with others who claim to speak for the Palestinians and who make no pretense of seeking a two-state solution.
For months, aides close to Netanyahu have been saying that the prime minister is far more optimistic about the prospects of reaching an accord with Abbas than almost all of those in his immediate circle and almost all of those around his cabinet table. His own public comments in recent weeks have emphatically pointed in that direction. He did not have to repeatedly, insistently, call Abbas his peace partner. He didn’t have to declare, as he did at the White House on September 1, that “I suppose there are many reasons for skepticism, but I have no doubt that peace is possible.” And he, of course, is uniquely placed to make such an assessment – in judging whether a permanent accord is potentially just around the corner.
If, when we finally have our answers, it turns out that Avigdor Lieberman’s bleak overview was accurate – that no remotely viable Israeli offer would satisfy the Palestinians, and that Abbas didn’t merely fail to respond to Ehud Olmert’s terms but had no intention of accepting anything like them – we will be left baffled by our prime minister’s contrary enthusiasm. And we will doubtless pay a heavy price. The talks will collapse. Those who advocate violence against us will see themselves as vindicated.
And since our own prime minister had endorsed Abbas’s peacemaking credentials, we will doubtless be painted in many quarters as the party that lacked those credentials, and thus responsible for our own and the Palestinians’ future bloodshed. The more so if the collapse is perceived to have resulted from a small-minded Israeli refusal to rein in settlement building for a few paltry weeks in the fall of 2010.
If it turns out that Abbas was the partner Netanyahu says he is, but that our prime minister failed to capitalize on what he himself had defined as a “rare historic opportunity” – that the chance was lost because of a stubborn refusal to maintain the freeze, or rather less improbably, that Netanyahu chose not to follow a viable path of compromise – that failure too will carry a bloody price. And he will not be easily forgiven – most of all by his people.
What have I forgotten? Oh yes, that elusive third possibility...