There are plenty of good reasons to doubt whether Benjamin Netanyahu has any real intention of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
He keeps approving new settlement construction in the territories where the Palestinians expect to build their state. He keeps coming up with new security red lines — control of the Jordan Valley, no yielding on Jerusalem, recognition as the state of the Jewish people — that happen to contradict core Palestinian red lines. And, of course, he’s assembled a governing coalition filled with key players and whole parties that flat-out oppose Palestinian statehood. Even his own Likud party is against it.
On the other hand, there are several very good reasons to suspect that he’s getting ready to make a deal. First of all, his allies on the right seem to think he is. They’re showing signs of panic. Several legislative initiatives are underway in the Knesset to tie the prime minister’s hands — two different bills to annex the Jordan Valley, plus another to require a Knesset super-majority before Israel can enter any negotiations on Jerusalem (this one actually passed the first hurdle, clearing the ministerial committee on legislation) — on the apparent assumption that without such restraints, he will give away the store. Maybe they know something.
Then there’s all the individual maneuvering by senior ministers. The defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, caused a serious international incident with some off-the-record comments that ended up on the front page of the mass-circulation Yediot Ahronot, calling Kerry “obsessive” and “messianic.” For an Israeli defense minister, in charge of managing the most critical aspect of Israel’s most critical relationship, to insult Israel’s most important ally in such a reckless way suggests a mood of extreme anxiety in the country’s senior echelons.
Yaalon isn’t the only one behaving strangely. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, usually considered one of the most hawkish figures in the cabinet, has been singing Kerry’s praises of late. He speaks of the importance of the secretary’s efforts and declares that Israel won’t get a better deal than the one Kerry is preparing. This seems wildly out of character, but it isn’t. Before ideology, Lieberman is first of all a canny survivor. He’s unmatched in his skill at sensing where the wind is blowing. Right now, it appears, he feels the wind blowing from Washington, and when the dust settles, he doesn’t want to be caught on the wrong side.
Just the opposite is Naftali Bennett, economics minister and head of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party. He’s been threatening lately to bolt the coalition if Netanyahu signs onto a Kerry framework agreement that involves major territorial withdrawals in Judea and Samaria. He’s worried enough about the possibility that he’s been speaking about it nonstop for weeks.
Bennett met with Netanyahu one-on-one several times in early January to lay out the red lines that would make him leave. He outlined them publicly in a speech in Tel Aviv a few days later: no dividing Jerusalem, no Palestinian state, no 1967 borders, no land swaps. In effect, no to any conceivable Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in this generation. News reports say Bennett has been meeting with Likud hard-liners, trying to line up a group beyond his own 12-member caucus that would walk out on Bibi en masse.