Diplomacy: Seven steps to success

Of all the meetings PM Binyamin Netanyahu attended this week, the most important one was with his own forum of advisers – the Septet.

Netanyahu Abbas Shake 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Netanyahu Abbas Shake 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu held a slew of meetings this week that could fairly be categorized as “important.” He met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US Mideast envoy George Mitchell and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in numerous meetings of various configurations in both Sharm e-Sheikh and Jerusalem – sometimes bilateral, sometimes trilateral and sometimes with a full complement of advisers.
(Interestingly enough, he did not meet once in private with Abbas.) Perhaps the most important meeting of them all, however, did not include Abbas or Clinton, Mubarak or Mitchell – it was the meeting he held with his senior cabinet members, the forum known as the “septet,” which he convened Monday afternoon a few hours before travelling the next day to intensive talks in Sharm.
In addition to Netanyahu, the septet includes three key Likud ministers, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor and Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin; and the heads of the coalition’s three largest parties – Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman from Israel Beiteinu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak from Labor and Interior Minister Eli Yishai from Shas.
While none of the contents of that meeting were made public, just as very little has come out about the nature of the diplomatic talks, it is clear that at the septet meeting diplomatic boundaries were set, beyond which Netanyahu could not stray in his talks, lest he begin to endanger his coalition.
And, of course, the critical issue now – because the Palestinians have made it the critical issue – is what Netanyahu will do regarding the settlement moratorium set to expire at midnight on September 26.
ONE OF the most surprising elements of the first 18 months of Netanyahu’s government has been the degree to which the 74-member coalition he cobbled together has remained intact, largely impervious to the waves beating up against it.
Two weeks ago, Lieberman, in a speech he gave party loyalists after Netanyahu returned from the first round of direct talks in Washington, said that the idea of a comprehensive peace in our generation, or the next, was nothing but an illusion.
“It must be understood that signing a comprehensive agreement in which both sides agree to end the conflict and end all of their claims and recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people is a goal that is not achievable in the next year or in the next generation, so any historic compromises or painful concessions won’t help,” he said.
That remark, extraordinary as it was coming from Netanyahu’s foreign minister, did nothing to shake up the coalition.
Netanyahu didn’t fire Lieberman who publicly pronounced disbelief in the government’s policies, and Lieberman did not quit over policies he so obviously and deeply disagrees with.
Imagine, for comparison sake, what would have happened if Clinton stood up and said that US President Barak Obama’s withdrawal of US troops from Iraq was an enormous mistake; or if French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner would say that his president’s policy regarding the expulsion of the Roma was indeed a disgrace.
Only here, it seems, could such a senior minister articulate such a serious break with a fundamental part of his government’s policy and still remain one of that government’s most important members.
No, Lieberman’s remark did not compel Netanyahu to shake up the coalition.
Nor, for that matter, did Mitchell’s comments Wednesday evening that the sides were rapidly grappling with all the core issues force Yishai to leave the coalition. Remember, this was the same Yishai who in 2008, when Shas was a member of Ehud Olmert’s coalition, said that if the Annapolis talks would even begin to deal with Jerusalem, his party would leave the government.
Mitchell implied that all the issues – including Jerusalem – were being tackled vigorously by the sides, yet Shas did not run for the exits. The reason is because in this government there are no surprises, and Yishai – as well as Lieberman and the other four members of the septet – knows and can live with how far Netanyahu is willing to go.
THIS HELPS explain the Prime Minister Office’s hypersensitivity Thursday to reports that Netanyahu had considered an American proposal to extend the settlement construction moratorium for three months, while the sides would engage in intensive negotiations over borders, at the end of which it would be clear where Israel could, and could not, build.
While reiterating that it was not going to reveal the content of the negotiations, a statement from the PMO said the “prime minister’s position in relation to the time allocated for a moratorium on new construction in Judea and Samaria is known, and there has been no change.”
This was critical for Netanyahu to clarify, since at the septet meeting the sense the participants walked away with was that the blanket moratorium would indeed end on September 26, and that Netanyahu would return to building in the settlements along the guidelines adopted by the Sharon and Olmert governments: building quietly and in limited numbers adjacent to the outer construction line in the large settlement blocks, and for natural growth within the built-up areas of settlements beyond the security fence.
The septet, the cabinet’s premier decision making body, is arguably Netanyahu’s most important creation since becoming prime minister, because it is a structure that ensures him “industrial quiet.” Since it encompasses the heads of all the major coalition parties, when things are decided in that forum, Netanyahu can pretty much rest assured that the parties will follow their leaders – mitigating bruising political battles down the road. Because how, for instance, is Israel Beiteinu’s National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau going to threaten to quit the government over a resumption of talks, when his party’s own head – Lieberman – has given his okay in the septet.
ON TUESDAY morning, after his meeting with the septet, Netanyahu went to Sharm for the direct negotiations with the Palestinians with at least a part of his battle won. He had consent from his senior ministers regarding the settlement moratorium – no easy matter when dealing with a body ranging from Barak on the left to Begin and Ya’alon on the right. But having pocketed that agreement, he could then go out and negotiate with the Americans and the Palestinians knowing that his political back was covered – at least as long as he remained true to the word he gave his senior ministers.
But what will irk the ministers, and endanger Netanyahu’s industrial quiet, is any hint that he might not be keeping his word to the septet – which explains why the PMO this week responded so quickly, and unequivocally, to reports he had changed his mind and was considering extending the moratorium. Extending the moratorium is not a policy the septet signed off on, and if Netanyahu disregards understandings reached inside that forum, he will be doing so at his government’s peril.