When It Comes to Peace, Benjamin Netanyahu Torn Between Head and Heart

As Bibi Wavers, John Kerry Peace Push Hangs in Balance

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published June 16, 2013, issue of June 21, 2013.

Secretary of State John Kerry was supposed to make his fifth Middle East trip in five months in pursuit of two states for two peoples during the second week of June, but he delayed for one week for emergency talks about the Syria crisis, which the White House was leaning toward doing something about, unlike some other crises.

That pretty much tells you what you need to know about the current state of Kerry’s Israeli-Palestinian peace effort. He believes time is running out on the possibility of a peaceful resolution, a view widely shared in Washington and other major capitals. He’s convinced that creating a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel is the only way to preserve Israel as a democratic Jewish state and avoid a slide into an unhappy, Belfast-style cohabitation, also a widely shared view. He’s hopeful that he can get the two sides to see the urgency and sit down to hammer out an agreement, and on that he’s pretty much alone.

The White House wishes Kerry well, but reportedly doesn’t intend to expend any political capital helping him before the 2014 midterm elections that will determine President Obama’s legacy. Europe is mired in its own problems. So are Egypt and Turkey. Any significant player who has any energy left is consumed by Syria.

There is one crucial player, however, that’s taking Kerry’s effort very seriously, and this could be the most important indicator that the secretary is on to something. The Israeli right has sprung dramatically to life in the past few weeks, mobilizing to head off what its leaders apparently sense is a changed mood in the prime minister’s office.

Israel’s deputy defense minister, Likud hard-liner Danny Danon, caused a stir internationally June 6 with an interview on an English-language website, the Times of Israel, declaring that the Israeli government would never approve a two-state solution. He also said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was only advocating two states on terms he knew the Palestinians would reject.

The interview drew howls of protest from opposition lawmakers and liberals within Netanyahu’s own Cabinet, plus a mild rebuke from Netanyahu’s office. Danon doubled down, undeterred, in a flurry of interviews, insisting there is no majority in the current coalition for a two-state peace pact.

Danon and his allies tried to prove the point at a June 11 meeting in Tel Aviv of the so-called Land of Israel Lobby, a Knesset caucus devoted to fighting territorial concessions in the West Bank. News reports said the caucus had 35 members, plus outside support from nine ministers in the 22-member Cabinet who are not allowed to join caucuses. That comes to 44 Knesset members, roughly two-thirds of Netanyahu’s 68-seat coalition. The co-chair of the caucus is coalition whip Yariv Levin of Likud, whose job it would be to round up votes for a peace agreement Netanyahu brought to the Knesset for ratification.

Even as the hawks’ caucus was meeting, however, it was showing holes. One of the 35, Dov Lipman of Yair Lapid’s liberal Yesh Atid party, told the assembled he had come “because it’s important for those who support the principle of two states for two peoples to show that they love the entire land of Israel, that the settlement blocs must be protected and that any concession, even the smallest, will be painful.” In other words, don’t count on me to stand with you when the crunch comes.



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