Who Stands Against Peace?

Palestinians Are Sounding Reasonable as Israel Drifts Right

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published November 29, 2012, issue of December 07, 2012.
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That was hard to imagine before the Likud primaries. The complexion of the party’s next Knesset faction, coupled with its new alliance with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, makes it even more unlikely.

It is conceivable that after examining the combined Likud-Beiteinu ticket, Israel’s voters will hand the baton to the center-left, which generally accepts the principles of adjusted 1967 borders and a shared Jerusalem. But the odds are slim. The main opposition leaders seem unable to overcome their oversized egos and present a united front. Besides, polls show the voters are in no mood for big concessions.

The biggest mystery in all this is what Netanyahu actually wants. He’s on record accepting the principle of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. If he means it, the U.N. resolution should be welcome news. Practically speaking, it does nothing more than ratify the principle of statehood and set the table for negotiating the details. Moreover, it gives a boost to Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas and his policy of peaceful coexistence, slowing the momentum of the rejectionist Hamas. Against all that, the technicality of bypassing the Oslo process is small stuff.

But Netanyahu’s position is more complicated than that. Although he embraced the two-state idea in 2009, his government never endorsed it. His Likud party openly opposed it even before the November primary. He’s never tried to win approval from the government or the party. Critics question whether he ever really meant it.

Then there’s the matter of getting to the table. Netanyahu has called since taking office for negotiations without preconditions. Abbas has complained — most recently in a lengthy Yediot Aharonot interview in October — that Netanyahu’s “no preconditions” actually meant dismissing all the progress made in 2008 talks between Abbas and former Israeli leader Ehud Olmert, and starting again from zero. Abbas cried foul and refused. President Barack Obama’s settlement freeze idea was a clumsy attempt to sidestep that impasse.

Netanyahu’s been saying ever since that Abbas refuses to negotiate. That’s technically true. But Israel’s military and intelligence leaders, both past and present, continuously urge Netanyahu to get back to the table, suggesting that they don’t believe Abbas is the problem. Many of them privately say they think Netanyahu simply doesn’t want a deal.

Abbas and Olmert both say they were about two months away from concluding a peace agreement when Olmert was forced from office by a scandal (he was later acquitted). Both sides had made extraordinary concessions. The result was a deal both could live with. The main outstanding issues were the fate of the Jewish West Bank city of Ariel and the precise number of refugees Israel would repatriate in a symbolic, one-time “right of return.”

It’s possible Netanyahu envisions a Palestinian state with far more limited borders than Olmert and Abbas discussed, with Israeli keeping control of the Jordan Valley and extensive security zones in the West Bank, along with groundwater, airspace and the electronic spectrum. He may have thought he could stonewall until he lowered Palestinian expectations. He may have thought he could negotiate a deal and get his coalition partners to acquiesce without endorsing it, much like the emerging concordat between Abbas and the Khaled Meshal faction in Hamas.

If that was his hope, the events of late November have made his task much, much harder.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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