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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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.

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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