The man who heads the right flank of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Israeli governing coalition, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, issued on Sunday what amounts to an extraordinary public acknowledgment: that a peace agreement with the Palestinians is possible — and indeed that negotiators had come within “a hair’s breadth” of concluding an agreement several times in recent years.
To be fair, Bennett didn’t put it exactly like that. What he said was that Israel had “stood a hair’s breadth” away from handing over key holy places in East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. This happened “twice in the last 15 years,” he said, “under Barak and under Olmert.” He was referring to the formal negotiations that Israel conducted with the Palestine Liberation Organization under then-prime ministers Ehud Barak in 2000-2001 and Ehud Olmert in 2008.
During both negotiating rounds, compromising on control of East Jerusalem was part of a package of concessions that Israel had accepted in principle, in return for the Palestinians’ agreement in principle to concessions on security arrangements, borders, refugees, neutrality, water resources and more.
Both rounds of negotiations broke down before completion. Israeli spokesmen have consistently pointed to the PLO’s failure to accept Israel’s “final offer” as evidence that the Palestinians are unwilling and unable to accept any peace arrangement because they refuse to accept Israel’s existence.
Bennett’s July 2 statement points to a different understanding. He states explicitly that Israelis faced the very real, immediate threat of losing some of Jerusalem’s holiest Jewish sites — he named “the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, the City of David and three-quarters of the Old City” — in the implementation of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that was just “a hair’s breadth” away from conclusion.
Bennett’s observation was contained in a 47-second video that he released late Sunday on his Facebook page. The video’s purpose was to explain the urgency of a so-called “Jerusalem Bill” that his Jewish Home party had submitted for Knesset approval. The law would require that any compromise over Israeli control of Jerusalem be approved by a supermajority of 80 votes in the 120-member Knesset.
That would make it virtually impossible for Israel to sign any peace agreement that included provisions for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. No serious observer has suggested that the Palestinians might accept a state that didn’t have its capital in East Jerusalem. One might call the Jerusalem Bill a poison pill.
Of course, the question is moot if one accepts the standard Israeli claim that the Palestinians are unable and unwilling to conclude a peace agreement that could be acceptable to Israel. Bennett’s words and actions suggest that he himself doesn’t believe that, though. Indeed, it seems unlikely that he’d be going to such lengths, even to the point of causing a coalition crisis, to guard against such a possibility if he doesn’t believe the possibility exists.
The crisis had begun earlier Sunday, when Netanyahu decided to freeze the bill by barring it from consideration in the Cabinet’s Ministerial Committee on Legislation. The committee is the first step in making a bill a law in Israel. Bennett’s video was in reply to Netanyahu’s freeze.
Some international commentators were taking comfort in Netanyahu’s obstruction as an indication that he actually wanted to keep the door open to a peace agreement but wasn’t saying so because of party politics.
Late in the day, however, the prime minister’s office clarified that Netanyahu fully supported the bill in principle, and that he himself had proposed just such legislation in the past.
The prime minister’s blocking action, the statement said, was based on procedural considerations, meant to prevent Bennett from shutting the prime minister out of his statutory role in the bill-drafting process.
In other words, Bennett was trying to claim all the credit for the bill for himself and his party, and Netanyahu and the Likud weren’t going to let that happen. Put differently, Netanyahu wanted to make clear that he was acting out of petty ego politics and not, God forbid, out of some desire to keep open the door to peace.
Standard Israeli narrative holds that Barak and Olmert offered the PLO virtually everything it claimed to want, including an independent state in Gaza and most of the West Bank, but that the Palestinians refused every offer — in Yasser Arafat’s walkout from the July 2000 summit with Barak at Camp David and in Mahmoud Abbas’s failure to respond in September 2008 to Olmert’s generous final offer.
History shows something slightly different. It’s true that Arafat walked out of the Camp David summit in July 2000. It’s also true that the negotiations resumed in Jerusalem a few weeks later and continued through the end of January 2001, moving in December to Washington and in January to the Egyptian resort of Taba. They ended because Barak’s coalition had collapsed, in part because of the Palestinians’ blood-soaked intifada. Barak was forced to call new elections, which he lost to Ariel Sharon’s Likud. Sharon declined to resume negotiating.
As for Olmert, he gave his “final offer” to Abbas on September 16, 2008, a month after resigning the prime minister’s post in the face of a pending indictment (though a few months before elections would determine his replacement). When Abbas brought Olmert’s offer to his negotiation affairs committee the following day, he was told, according to minutes leaked to Al-Jazeera, not to bother answering because Olmert wouldn’t be around to implement the agreement. Better to wait and see who takes over. That, it turned out, was Netanyahu, who insisted on negotiating “without preconditions” — meaning ignoring all the understandings reached in 20 years of negotiating and starting from scratch.
It should be recalled, too, that there was another negotiating round before Barak’s: a series of talks in 1995, under Yitzhak Rabin, between Israeli deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin and Abbas, who at that time the PLO’s deputy chairman. They reached an initial outline agreement in mid-October 1995. Rabin was assassinated November 4, and talks ended.
Now Netanyahu holds the torch. He’s said repeatedly that he wants peace, that nobody wants peace more than Israelis. He said that although he doesn’t want Israel to rule 4 million disenfranchised Palestinians, Palestinian hostility makes peace impossible. It seems, though, that he shares Bennett’s fear that a peace agreement is possible on terms Israel can live with, that a future Israeli leader will manage to reach an agreement without getting deposed, indicted or shot, and that Israelis will then be forced to decide which they want more — peace or East Jerusalem.
Bennett, and perhaps Netanyahu, appear to be petrified at the prospect that Israelis actually want what they say they do — peace.
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).