Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces a police investigation regarding very expensive gifts that he allegedly received during his tenure, recently raised the option of calling early elections for the Knesset. He used an odd excuse for the timing, something about the reform of electronic media, but political observers believe that his real motive is his hope that early elections may thwart his investigation. If he is re-elected, the thinking goes, he will then be in a stronger position to face the investigators, once the public again gives him a stamp of approval.
It can all change quickly, and the current political crisis could disappear next week, but the crisis exposed deep cracks in Netanyahu’s coalition and threatens his job security. If he is not the prime minister, Israel’s peace policy will change, even if a politician from his own party replaces him (remember Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert). Obviously, a victory by a center-left opponent will lead to more significant change.
The Trump administration should prepare itself for such an eventuality, because many of its current ideas are intended to meet Netanyahu’s specific demands, which would not necessarily be the demands of a future prime minister.
Netanyahu often insists that the Palestinian side should recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This is something accepted in the United Nations resolution 181 in 1947 and adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1988.
This demand was not put forward in the peace agreement with Egypt in 1979, or in the pact with Jordan in 1994. Once Netanyahu raised the issue, the Palestinians made a big deal out of it, something Israel will likely pay an unnecessary price for in future negotiations. Another example of his hard-line approach is his consistent opposition to an American or an American-led multilateral force to maintain security in the future nonmilitarized Palestinian state. He is also against any division of sovereignty in East Jerusalem, and resists absorbing even a symbolic number of Palestinian refugees into Israel. He opposes negotiating with the Palestinians on the basis of the 1967 border, which is the only reasonable point of reference for any talks on the territorial issue.
Netanyahu’s “peace policy” is his own baby. Even his qualified decision to adopt the two-state solution was never brought to any of his Cabinets for a vote, let alone to his party’s institutions.
If Netanyahu isn’t the prime minister, the discourse about peace should change profoundly. This is also true about the immediate future; Netanyahu plans to build the occupied West Bank’s first new settlement in the past 25 years, to compensate the 40 families who were evicted from their homes in the Amona settlement (the Israeli Supreme Court had decided that their neighborhood had illegally been built on a Palestinian’s private land). And he opposes the idea of a total freeze on settlement building. A new prime minister may abandon this policy, making it easier to launch serious negotiations with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu is not ready to pay the price for the permanent agreement: the one that President Clinton offered in 2000, detailed by the informal Geneva Initiative of 2003, and declared by Secretary John Kerry in 2016: a Palestinian nonmilitarized state, based on the ’67 borders, with mutual land swaps; an Israeli readiness to absorb a limited number of Palestinian refugees and to take part in an international effort to compensate the refugees, and an Israeli Jerusalem that will include West Jerusalem and the Israeli neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, as well as a Palestinian capital in the city’s Arab neighborhoods.
The only realistic option for Netanyahu is a partial agreement, establishing a Palestinian state in provisional borders. If Netanyahu manages to retain his job, the Trump administration should encourage this option, because it is still better than doing nothing. But if Netanyahu leaves office because of an indictment or electoral defeat, serious negotiations with the PA, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, must quickly resume.
It will not be easy. Hamas will prevent Gaza from being part of any agreement with Israel, so any permanent agreement will have to be implemented for the time being in only the West Bank, while opening a door for Hamas to step through in the future.
The idea of a two-state solution, which keeps the full independence and sovereignty of each of the parties, under an umbrella of a confederation (which can make it easier to coordinate in vital areas, and can prevent the need to evacuate settlers who will find themselves on the other side of the new border) should be examined.
It will be a moment of truth for Abbas. He managed to avoid responding seriously to American and Israeli peace overtures (Olmert in 2008 and Kerry in 2014). Nobody can be sure about the reaction of the old man in Ramallah, but as long as Netanyahu remains as Israel’s leader, he serves as Abbas’s best excuse to maintain the status quo.
Yossi Beilin is a former Israeli minister of justice. He initiated the Oslo Accords, the Beilin-Abu Mazen understandings, the Geneva Initiative and the Taglit-Birthright Israel project. Today he is the president of Beilink, an international consultancy and investment firm.