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.

The latest bit of conventional wisdom is a new peace plan being floated by journalists — Ari Shavit, Jeffrey Goldberg and Ben Caspit have all raised it — that Kerry give up trying to resolve the conflict and look for interim steps. For example, Israel could freeze new settlement construction beyond the security barrier, while the Palestinians focus on state-building. That would build mutual confidence.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu can’t freeze construction indefinitely without an end game in sight, and the Palestinians can’t maintain the state-building they’re already doing without a political horizon. Pentagon officials have been warning for three years that the quiet maintained on the West Bank since 2006 would break down without visible diplomatic progress toward statehood. Now, as Israel’s military chief of Central Command said on June 19, the breakdown has begun. It’s too late for interim steps.

Kerry’s problem is how to assure Abbas that negotiations will yield an outcome he can live with, given Bibi’s refusal to commit. That involves some very complicated negotiating. That’s why it’s taking so long.

Kerry is working with three variables: borders, settlements and prisoners. The idea of freezing settlement construction was raised by President Obama in 2009 as a way to entice the Palestinians back to the table without a Netanyahu commitment to the 1967 lines. The logic was that Israel had already agreed to a freeze in the 2003 road map. But Israel resisted. Bibi finally agreed to a 10-month freeze, except for East Jerusalem and except for projects already underway. It took nine months to convince Abbas to accept that as a freeze. Talks lasted a month.

Abbas raised the issue of prisoners this year as a way to keep face while returning to open-ended talks. He wants Israel to free 120 prisoners held for crimes committed before the 1993 Oslo accords. Palestinians consider them warriors. Israel considers them terrorists.

According to Israeli sources quoted in various media, Kerry is assembling a package of partial concessions for Abbas. After talking with Bibi he’s concluded that Israel can’t commit to the 1967 lines but America can. Israel will again freeze construction, but again partially, and this time without declaring it. As for prisoners, Bibi wants to release them in batches as talks progress, to ensure the Palestinians don’t bolt at the first snag. Abbas wants them all at once. That’s what they’re working on now.

How do we know it’s working? Well, Bibi has sent two signals in recent days that seem enormously significant. On June 27 a senior Likud minister said, presumably with authorization from the boss, that Israel insists on a long-term troop presence along the Jordan River even if it doesn’t retain sovereignty. A year ago Bibi was saying he wanted permanent control of the entire Jordan Valley, not just the river edge. That’s huge.

The minister also said Netanyahu was willing to concede more than 90% of the West Bank if Israel’s security needs were met. That’s close to the figure Barak offered at Camp David. It’s not a deal, but it’s a plausible opener. Moreover, once you say 90%, the question becomes, 90% of what? The answer is, 90% of the area within the 1967 lines.

Abbas replied a few days later, on July 2, saying he was “optimistic” about Kerry’s mission. As for negotiating with Bibi, “there is nothing keeps us from meeting. We are prepared to meet at any time. We are determined to reach peace with the Israelis. They are our neighbors and we recognize that. They and we need to live in security and stability.”

Is that optimistic enough for you?

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


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