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.
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More important, the hawks’ show of strength inadvertently showed their weakness. After weeks of organizing, they were able to gather slightly over one-third of the 120-member Knesset to oppose Palestinian statehood. Efforts to enlist members of the opposition Haredi parties were shot down. The caucus comprises the Jewish Home party, most of Likud-Beiteinu and no one else.

In the end, numbers have limited importance. In these situations the prime minister constitutes a majority of one. Reading Bibi’s intentions is Israel’s favorite guessing game.

Netanyahu’s tone has changed radically since Obama’s re-election last November. He’s less partial to stentorian lectures about what Israel can’t do — withdraw to disadvantageous borders, sacrifice its historic patrimony, let down its guard in an eternally hostile region — and more prone to nuanced talk about what Israel can do, mainly defend itself in any circumstances. He speaks frequently about his desire to negotiate a two-state peace with the Palestinian Authority.

More substantively, he’s said to have agreed to Kerry’s request for a quiet, informal freeze on settlement construction, though critics say implementation leaves much to be desired. The freeze for the first time includes Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, the sticking point that kept the Palestinians away from the table for most of 2010. He put Tzipi Livni in charge of the negotiating process.

On the other hand, he’s placed hard-liners in key positions of influence where they can undermine the freeze — as defense minister, deputy defense minister, deputy foreign minister. His longtime confidante Yitzhak Molcho accompanies Livni like a babysitter to every diplomatic meeting.

People who’ve spoken to him recently say he’s torn between his head and his heart. Analytically, he’s come to accept the demographic argument that Israel must separate from the territories if it is to remain a Jewish democracy. He understands the military and intelligence analyses about what constitutes a defensible border: that in an age of modern rocketry, when Hezbollah has thousands of missiles that can reach Tel Aviv from Lebanon, the strategic advantage of territorial depth has lost most of its meaning. He understands that Israel’s most important defensive asset is deterrence — eliminating the enemy’s motivation to attack, through a combination of signed agreements, effective intelligence and fear of retaliation.

Some of the most important lessons shaping current Israeli military doctrine have come in the past seven years: The sturdiness of the peace treaty with Egypt, even after the takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood. The effectiveness of Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation in drastically reducing terror in the West Bank. And, where agreements don’t exist, the effectiveness of Israel’s military operations against Hezbollah in 2006 and against Hamas in 2008-09 in dampening the terrorist organizations’ enthusiasm for firing at Israel and restoring quiet.

Two related lessons are derived from those experiences. One is the enormous strategic value of reaching signed agreements with neighbors, even at the cost of tangible assets like land. The other is the importance of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians in order to stem Israel’s growing unpopularity in Europe and elsewhere. International isolation has a concrete value in access to trade, credit, military equipment and spare parts and freedom of travel. But it also has an intangible value in freedom of action against cross-border terrorism. Israeli governments that are perceived as peace-seeking global citizens — and perception is crucial — can take necessary actions to punish, deter and prevent hostile activity in ways that pariah governments can’t.

Bibi gets all that, according to those who’ve spoken with him recently. His head tells him that’s the way to go to ensure Israel’s long-term security. But his gut still tells him to trust no one, stick with his traditional political allies and defend what’s Israel’s by right, whatever the cost.

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


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