WASHINGTON WATCH: Does he or doesn’t he?

There actually may have been progress in the secret negotiations, but both leaders refuse to make anything public for fear their hardline supporters would disapprove.

Federica Mogherini et Benjamin Netanyahou (photo credit: REUTERS)
Federica Mogherini et Benjamin Netanyahou
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured the EU’s foreign policy chief that he supports the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while at the same time taking a number of clear steps in the opposite direction.
The latest was the appointment of his longtime confidante Dore Gold, a persistent critic of the twostate approach, to be director general of the Foreign Ministry. To make room for Gold, Netanyahu fired veteran diplomat Nissim Ben-Shitrit, who last month warned that Israel “is liable to pay a heavy price” because of the “intense, ongoing and public” crisis in relations with the Obama administration, reported Haaretz.
Writing recently in Sheldon Adelson’s newspaper, Israel Hayom, Gold suggested “the US was the main source of Middle Eastern tensions and not Iran.”
Gold, a Connecticut native, was Netanyahu’s UN ambassador from 1997 to 1999. More recently he headed the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, which produces a Likud-slanted news brief called “Daily Alert” that is distributed to US Jewish groups and leaders by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
His nominal boss at the ministry will be deputy minister Tzipi Hotovely, a religious nationalist who wants to annex all of the West Bank, citing the Torah as Israel’s deed to all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. “This land is ours. All of it is ours,” she said.
Gold has a longer relationship with and better access to the boss than Hotovely and is expected to bypass her regularly. Netanyahu is retaining the title of foreign minister for himself because he wants to use it as bait to lure center-left Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog to join his very narrow right-wing coalition.
Herzog insists he’s not interested.
Netanyahu also named Silvan Shalom, another foe of the two-state solution, to be in charge of peace negotiations.
In the six years since he first spoke of the two-state approach, Netanyahu has yet to ask his Likud Party or his coalition partners and government to endorse the concept of “two states for two peoples.”
He told EU foreign minister Federica Mogherini he supports the “vision” of “two states for two peoples” but he’s added enough caveats to render his commitment suspect at best.
He also reportedly told her he was ready to negotiate settlement bloc boundaries, which Palestinians immediately rejected as a bid to get them to sanction construction there, but with no concessions in return.
Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have repeatedly declared their support for the two-state approach, but their actions suggest what they’re really telling us is “that may be what I said but it’s not what I meant.”
Abbas has put so many conditions on talks with Israel that he has little credibility. In rejecting Netanyahu’s proposal, a PA spokesman reiterated Abbas’ demand a total halt to all construction beyond the 1967 lines, including in east Jerusalem, the release of all prisoners held since 1993, and a certain date for an end to the occupation as a preconditions for resuming talks.
Meanwhile Abbas is proceeding with plans to file war crimes charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said the Obama administration opposes Abbas’s strategy and will “use all tools at its disposal to combat delegitimization against Israel.”
In an interview last week and a speech at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington marking Jewish Heritage Month, President Obama reiterated his support for “two states for two peoples,” adding that “the risks of doing nothing” and “perpetuating the status quo” are far greater than those of making peace.
Martin Indyk, the former US ambassador to Israel and peace envoy during last year’s failed effort by Secretary of State John Kerry to revive the peace process, said that despite their pious rhetoric, neither leader was committed to making peace.
“What we discovered during the 10 months of the negotiations is that the parties really didn’t want to be there, and were further away at the end of the negotiations than at the beginning,” he told a Council on Foreign Relations panel.
Abbas prefers to internationalize the conflict, with a settlement imposed on Israel by the international community rather than have to negotiate a deal himself by making any concessions that might be condemned by Palestinian hardliners and rejectionists. It would be easier for him to say concessions were forced upon him by the world powers than given voluntarily to the Zionists.
And Netanyahu is playing into his hands. When he tried to pivot back from his pre-election vow that there would never be a Palestinian state while he was prime minister, he met a flood of skepticism. He assured the EU’s foreign minister that he supports the “vision” of a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.
Netanyahu can make a credible case that he doesn’t have a partner, but in the six years since his Bar-Ilan speech he has nothing he can point to as steps he has taken to turn that “vision” into reality. Abbas can just as easily argue that he has no partner for peace, a claim most of the world now accepts.
Interestingly, there actually may have been progress in the secret negotiations, but both leaders refuse to make anything public for fear their hardline supporters would disapprove.
That’s the report from David Makovsky, a member of Kerry’s negotiating team and a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. More progress was made during the 10 months of talks – notably on refugees and borders – than was made public but the two risk-averse leaders lacked the courage to embrace it publicly.
Neither were they willing to publicly acknowledge the positive moves made by the other side, such as Palestinian security cooperation and Israeli removal of security checkpoints and restraint on settlement construction, Makovsky said.
Netanyahu and Abbas are quick to talk tough to the opposite side, he added, but neither has the courage to speak truth to his own people about the difficult compromises essential to making peace. And until they do, Netanyahu will be unable to maintain the status quo, as he’d prefer, and Abbas will not have the state that his people want.