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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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.

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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