Why Benjamin Netanyahu May Look at the Math — and Cut Deal on Peace Plan

Right Wingers Have Less Leverage Than We Think

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published January 20, 2014, issue of January 24, 2014.
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Bennett’s problem is that his walkout would be pointless. Bibi could replace his hard-line bloc in a heartbeat. Labor and Shas, with 26 Knesset seats between them, would happily join a Netanyahu government that was preparing to embrace Kerry’s plan. (No more than three or four of Shas’s 11 lawmakers back the party’s right-wing ex-leader Eli Yishai; the rest follow old-new leader Aryeh Deri, a confirmed dove.) News reports say United Torah Judaism, with six seats, would also join up. The left-wing Meretz, with six seats, would support the deal from outside the coalition. So would the 11 lawmakers of the so-called Arab parties.

In fact, if Bibi were to present the Knesset tomorrow with a deal along the lines Kerry is developing, creating a demilitarized Palestinian state with borders based on the pre-1967 lines, with land swaps, a symbolic compromise on refugees and a modified reference to the Arab Peace Initiative (which already includes an “end of conflict” clause), he’d get between 72 and 75 votes out of 120, or 60% to 62%, even before the arm-twisting begins.

Bibi knows the math. It puts him in a double bind. He ran for prime minister in 2009 with the intention of rolling back the concessions Ehud Olmert had offered the Palestinians in 2008. He viewed them as too risky from a security point of view. Five years later, he’s hit a wall: The Palestinians aren’t backing down nearly as far as he’d hoped. And in the meanwhile, the rest of the world — even including the Americans — is running out of patience.

This is the part where Bibi’s supposed to stand up and say, No, Israel’s security requires that I draw the line here, even if it means no deal. Unfortunately, five years have also taught him that almost none of Israel’s security professionals — the people whose job it is to read the landscape, analyze the enemy’s intentions and win the wars — agree with his analysis. As they see it, the greatest threat to Israel is to go another generation without an agreement. He’s gone through three national security advisers, replaced the heads of all the intelligence services, shuffled and reshuffled, but whoever he comes up with tells him the same thing.

Take Kerry’s plan for Jordan Valley. It’s not the Israeli military’s dream scenario, but it’s the best that has a chance of winning Palestinian acceptance. In fact, the Israeli military helped design it. That makes it harder for Bibi to reject it. That’s bind number one.

Bibi can argue, and rightly so, that generals and spooks don’t make national policy in a democracy. That’s what elections are for, and he was elected prime minister. If he doesn’t like the deal, it’s his prerogative to say no.

On the other hand, when he looks at the elected Knesset, he realizes that the Israeli voters didn’t vote for a government that would say no. Upwards of 60% voted for parties that would say yes. That’s bind number two.

It’s not just American pressure that’s pushing him toward the painful compromises he vowed never to make. It’s the will of the Israeli public.

His allies on the right see how torn he is. That’s why they’re panicking.

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


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