Benjamin Netanyahu's Indecision Is Roadblock to Peace Push

If Premier Makes Up His Mind, John Kerry Could Still Succeed

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published July 09, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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I was on the phone the other day with a very senior adviser to a string of former Likud leaders and prime ministers, mostly listening while he talked about Secretary of State John Kerry and his marathon Israeli-Palestinian peace-processing. He wasn’t optimistic.

His main reason for pessimism: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reluctance to risk collapsing his coalition by outlining where the border should be. The Palestinians, the adviser said, are ready to negotiate a peace agreement, but they insist on starting where their talks with Ehud Olmert broke off in 2008, which means basing the map on the pre-1967 border.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is strong enough to strike a deal, the adviser said — stronger than he’s been in years. The Arab League is ready to back him once a deal is reached, and the neighboring regimes are too preoccupied with their own problems to get in the way. The trouble is that Bibi won’t say what he wants.

The adviser said Olmert’s last offer was roughly the same as Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David in July 2000, President Clinton’s so-called parameters of December 2000 and President George W. Bush’s letter to Ariel Sharon in April 2004. Each plan showed borders based on the 1967 lines, with adjustments. Israel would keep the major settlement blocs of Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim and Ariel, swapping land in return. Broad understandings were reached on Jerusalem and refugees. The Palestinians don’t see why they should accept less than they’ve already been offered, the adviser said.

Bibi understands what needs to happen, the adviser said. He understands that Europe has lost patience with Israeli rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank, and America is slipping. This looming isolation is a mortal security and economic threat. But he’s afraid to risk his coalition. He wants to start negotiating and then lay out his ideas at the table.

Abbas doesn’t trust Bibi, though. He won’t risk entering a negotiation that might fail and lead to another Palestinian eruption. That’s where Kerry’s process is stuck.

Frankly, this wasn’t what I expected to hear from a famous Likud tough guy. Still, with all due respect, I’m finding myself disagreeing with him. I thought he was being too dismissive of Bibi. Events since the phone call have made me more optimistic.

Conventional wisdom says neither side is ready to make peace. The Palestinians are supposedly too divided, and Abbas is too weak to convince his minions to compromise. Bibi is widely assumed to be stalling, hoping somehow to keep the territories, leave the settlements in place and wish the problem away. Both assessments are plain wrong. Whatever their histories, both leaders are now eager to reach a two-state agreement.

The other half of conventional wisdom says that the two sides’ bottom lines are simply too far apart for an agreement. That’s probably wrong, too. Except for the fate of Ariel, which protrudes deep into the West Bank, and the number refugees to be symbolically “returned” — Olmert offered 5,000, Abbas wanted 150,000 — the major issues are more or less settled. Abbas has said so openly and repeatedly. Netanyahu hasn’t said it openly, but he’s hinted at it every way he can without breaking up his party.


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