It was on a Friday evening, July 19, that Secretary of State John Kerry announced the upcoming resumption of Israel-Palestinian peace talks after a three-year freeze. There were no preconditions announced. Kerry had met Palestinian demands by giving his own promise — in writing, Palestinian officials said — that negotiations would be based on Israel’s pre-1967 armistice lines and Israel would freeze new settlement construction.
On Sunday, Palestinian Authority spokesman Yasser Abed Rabbo backtracked and demanded that Israel openly agree to the 1967 baseline, something Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has consistently refused to do.
Palestinian officials didn’t rule out Kerry’s planned meeting in Washington between Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni. But now the Palestinians said the meeting wouldn’t be the start of a peace negotiation. It would merely be an exploratory session to try and define the terms for negotiations — terms that seemed as out of reach as ever after Abed Rabbo’s statement.
The question is, what happened between Friday and Sunday to turn the Palestinian “yes” into a “no”?
Nothing is ever certain in Middle East diplomacy, and Abed Rabbo’s objections may dissolve once Erekat and Livni sit together. But a flurry of events took place Saturday evening in Jerusalem that complicated Kerry’s plans.
Kerry’s promises to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas were based on understandings he’d reached after hours of discussions with Netanyahu. If the secretary of state did indeed commit to the 1967 borders-with-swaps formula and a settlement freeze, it means Netanyahu indicated he could live with that, even though saying it aloud would collapse his coalition.
On Saturday night, though, one of Netanyahu’s key coalition partners, economy and commerce minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, said his party would “insist” on continuing settlement construction during negotiations. He also reiterated his threat to bolt the coalition if Netanyahu agreed to negotiations based on the 1967 lines.
Also speaking out against Kerry’s terms Saturday night was Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon. In addition to rejecting any withdrawal of settlers, he condemned release of Palestinian prisoners, which Netanyahu had embraced as step toward renewing talks.
Others in Netanyahu’s circle spoke similarly, including influential Likud lawmakers Miri Regev and Yariv Levin. By Sunday morning, the Palestinians were suspecting that Kerry might have promised more than he could deliver.
Danon was a key figure. He chairs the Likud central committee, which puts him in prime position to constrict Netanyahu’s moves. If Danon decided to fully mobilize his troops, he could force Netanyahu into the choice Ariel Sharon faced after the Likud rejected his Gaza disengagement plan in 2005: abandon his plan or leave the Likud. Sharon left the Likud and took 14 of its 38 lawmakers with him to form Kadima. Netanyahu’s current Likud only holds 21 seats. It’s not clear how many would follow him if he decided to buck a party decision against peace talks.
Here’s Netanyahu’s dilemma: Only about 45 or 50 current members of the 120-member Knesset would vote against a two-state peace agreement, but 35 or 40 of them are in his current 68-seat coalition. A peace accord could easily win a vote on the Knesset floor, but it’s not clear it could get through the coalition to reach the floor.
Just how complicated his life is right now was driven home at a meeting of his inner security Cabinet, also on Saturday night. As reported in the Times of Israel, the Cabinet convened to discuss planned cuts in the defense budget. Netanyahu had invited his close ally Yuval Steinitz, a non-member of the inner Cabinet who was finance minister in the last government and is now minister of intelligence affairs.
Before getting to the budget, however, Netanyahu started to discuss Kerry and the Palestinian talks. At that point, Finance Minister Yair Lapid demanded that Steinitz leave the room since he’s not a member of the inner cabinet. When Netanyahu argued that Steinitz had valuable perspectives on the topic, Lapid suggested inviting his own ally, Science Minister Yaakov Peri, a former head of the Shin Bet security service and the most dovish minister in Netanyahu’s government — and, as Lapid pointed out, the only minister other than defense chief Moshe Yaalon with a security background. At that point Netanyahu folded and ordered Steinitz to leave.
Lapid’s jab had a double irony. In the previous government the security Cabinet had 14 members, including eight from the Likud and two or three each from the smaller coalition partners. In the current coalition Netanyahu insisted on limiting the security Cabinet to just seven members — four from his Likud-Beiteinu bloc and one each from the other partners — specifically, according to reports, in order to prevent Lapid from naming Peri as his party’s second representative.
The Peri flap was just the latest reminder of the overwhelming opposition within the security establishment to Netanyahu’s go-slow approach to Palestinian peace talks. On June 19, Chief of Central Command General Nitzan Alon, who commands Israeli forces in the West Bank, warned in a speech of a third violent intifada looming if there isn’t serious movement in the peace process.
On July 14, former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin published a blistering, 3,200-word attack on the political leadership for jeopardizing Israel’s survival by continuing settlement construction and failing to achieve a two-state agreement with the Palestinians. That same day, Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich announced a November 14 leadership primary. Her lead challenger will probably be the former military chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, who’s expected to attack her for neglecting the peace process. Another likely challenger is former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin.
What happens in the Labor Party is of considerable interest to Netanyahu right now. If peace talks progress, Bennett’s 12 Jewish Home lawmakers will almost certainly leave the coalition. Bibi will need Labor to maintain his Knesset majority. That won’t be easy if Labor is in the middle of a messy leadership scrap, especially if the contenders are trying to outdo each other in beating up on Bibi.
But there’s another trap. If Bibi does decide to assemble a new coalition to pursue peace, he’ll have a hard time remaining in charge of it. The lawmakers who would back a peace accord would be unlikely to choose Netanyahu as their leader.
If Netanyahu is serious about making a deal with the Palestinians — and that’s still hotly debated among friends and foes alike — he’ll have to do some pretty delicate maneuvering.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).