Inside Out: Netanyahu’s Palestinian predicament

The stakes are so high, and the confidence in the outcome is so low it is no surprise Netanyahu’s response in the past three years has been to do virtually nothing.

Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Palestinian predicament is truly vexing. The stakes are so high, and the confidence in the outcome is so low it is no surprise Netanyahu’s response in the past three years has been to do virtually nothing.
Netanyahu’s decision to maintain the status quo, beyond reasons of substance, was reinforced by his own ideological predisposition, a fundamental mistrust of Palestinian intentions and political expedience. Serious advances toward a final-status arrangement with the Palestinians would only have produced not only significant security risks for Israel, but would also have alienated the Likud base and its so-called “natural” partners, placing his coalition in jeopardy.
Inaction, however, is unlikely to continue to be viable policy for the new Netanyahu government, no matter what its composition.
Surely, few would dispute that international pressure has been mounting for Israel to end the occupation and to allow for the emergence of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank. The UN General Assembly vote last November to upgrade the PA to observer-state status, which was secured with the active and passive support of many key Israeli allies, was broadly perceived as a signal of those allies’ displeasure with Israel’s polices on the West Bank and their skepticism about the sincerity of the Israeli prime minister’s intentions.
The local media, moreover, have reported repeatedly in the past few months about plans by Israel’s European allies, spearheaded by the UK and France, to apply real pressure on Israel in the form of sanctions, with the goal of prompting Israel to take steps that would culminate in the emergence of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank in 2013.
That is without mentioning the pressure that US President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to Israel and the PA in another five weeks is certain to produce in Jerusalem. Netanyahu is not going to want to send the American president away emptyhanded.
He will be impelled either to do or, at the very least, to say something meaningful on the Palestinian front during President Obama’s visit.
And yet, the Palestinian predicament remains frustratingly vexing for Netanyahu. For a variety of good reasons, the Israeli political leadership and general public have little faith in the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.
Despite the extended lull in terrorist activity out of the West Bank that has been achieved in recent years under Mahmoud Abbas and PA prime minister Salam Fayyad’s leadership, the memory of the al-Aksa intifada, in which Fatah supporters played a prominent role, is still strong in the minds of Israelis. Many are skeptical of Fatah’s fundamental integrity, and doubt the PA intends truly to uphold its end of any agreement reached.
Moreover, one ought to question the wisdom of trying to broker a deal with Abbas, whose term as the elected Palestinian president ended four years ago.
Many Israelis – not to mention Palestinians – would justly argue that Abbas, who has refrained from holding elections since 2006, cannot claim to be the legitimate representative of even the Palestinian population in the West Bank.
The conclusion that Netanyahu and many other Israelis have drawn – in facing a putative partner that is perceived as both untrustworthy and illegitimate – is that Israel should not and indeed must not take any substantive steps toward ending its dominion over the Palestinian residents of the West Bank until a credible and clearly legitimate partner is seated in Ramallah instead.
WHAT CAN Netanyahu do, caught thus between the mounting international impatience with the soon 46- year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank, on the one hand, and his own severe misgivings about his presumed negotiating partners, on the other? Doing nothing while citing Palestinian intransigence – which has been Netanyahu’s chosen course of action in the past three years – is unlikely to yield good results for Israel any longer. On the contrary, all signs indicate that Israeli inaction will prompt other global powers, including some of Israel’s allies in the West, to try to force an end of the Israeli occupation either by means of sanctions, an imposed solution or both. Even if Israel successfully resists those efforts, the political, economic and diplomatic price paid by Israel will be forbiddingly high.
Instead, Netanyahu must persuade world leaders that he is sincere in his desire to bring about an end of the Israeli occupation, despite his misgivings about the Palestinian leadership and irrespective of what he believes the Palestinians’ ultimate intentions may be. Merely reaffirming the principles of his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, as he did this week in a speech before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, is unlikely to be sufficiently persuasive.
Rather, the prime minister will to have to be more specific in demarcating the boundaries of the future Palestinian state he envisions, even at the risk of angering the pro-settler lobby, including within his own party. Moreover, he is going to have to back up those words with steps that will begin to establish those boundaries in practice, even in the absence of a peace agreement with a Palestinian partner. One of those steps is likely to be a commitment unlimited in time not to build anywhere beyond Israel’s envisioned future borders – to wit, not outside the major settlement blocs.The author is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.