Netanyahu hasn’t crossed the Rubicon

Conjecture abounds as to whether the PM has entered peace talks to do business or to filibuster; but the commitment recently displayed by the U.S. means testing times ahead for Israel's coalition.

President, US/Middle East Project

Click here to see the Arabic version of this article.

Conjecture abounds as to whether the PM has entered peace talks to do business or to filibuster; but the commitment recently displayed by the U.S. means testing times ahead for Israel's coalition.

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What. That would be the obvious question. What might Israeli-Palestinian peace talks produce by way of an agreement? Only the question on most people’s lips is not what, but why- why are Americans, Israelis and Palestinians doing this to themselves and to us yet again?

For Secretary of State John Kerry (President Obama is providing crucial backing for the peace effort but this is unmistakably Kerry-driven) the answer might be relatively simple. Kerry is familiar with, and committed to the issue; knows that if there are to be two states then the parameters for a deal exist- and time is running out; that this is in the U.S. national interest and a John Kerry legacy item. Likewise Palestinian President Abbas is a relatively open book; he rejects liberation through armed struggle; eschews an ANC- style struggle for equal rights and sanctioning of Israel; he has signed up to the international consensus parameters for two states, and is a perennial peace-processor.

So really the ‘why’ question boils down to Benjamin Netanyahu and his motivation.

After the dramatic prisoner release vote, are we to conclude that Netanyahu has joined the ranks of Peace Now? In a well-choreographed piece of theatre, Netanyahu chose to release prisoners rather than accept the 1967 line as a basis for border negotiations, or freeze settlements; that should tell you something about the negotiations ahead. So should Netanyahu’s behaviour across seven years in the Prime Minister’s Office, including his most recent choice of coalition allies. Naftali Bennett’s lust for land and blood is more suited to Game of Thrones than to membership in a responsible, let alone peace-seeking, government. If Netanyahu is yet to undergo a metamorphosis (and more on that in a moment) it is back to the ‘why’ question.

This could be about getting the American peace monkey off his back in order to refocus on Iran. Kerry’s dogged determination to get talks re-started and Obama’s personal engagement and backing – including that visit and that speech – would have come as something of an unwelcome surprise to Israel’s leader. So a minor tactical retreat to allow for peace talks to begin and then get buried for nine months would be worth it if attention shifts back to Iran and to the torpedoing of any new diplomatic opening generated by the Rowhani presidency in Tehran.

But if Netanyahu imagines that mere talks with Saeb Erekat will move America any closer to launching a another war in the Muslim world, then he has not been paying attention to the current no-nonsense occupant of the White House.

Perhaps this is Bibi buying himself a prolonged period of domestic, regional and international quiet. As long as this is just talks, Netanyahu’s coalition will not be threatened. But just talks might be enough to delay further European measures to reinforce the distinction between Israel proper and the settlements, to hold in abeyance Palestinian moves at the UN, and to facilitate greater cooperation with the current batch of American-allied Arab autocrats- the new ruling generals in Cairo included. One should at least hope that the Europeans are wise enough to understand that until an actual deal is agreed, their contribution to peace is to make ever-more tangible to Israel the costs of continued occupation. Palestinians, one assumes, will also be unable to maintain UN restraint for too long in the face of inevitable Israeli settlement construction and provocations.

So maybe Israel’s Prime Minister is in these talks to do business after all.

There are two variations on this story, and only one has a happy ending. Netanyahu might think that he can exploit Palestinian weakness, Arab perfidy and American exuberance to dictate an interim or permanent agreement exclusively on Israel’s terms, or at least succeed in pinning blame for any failure on Abbas rather than himself. A deal that delivers on Israeli maximalist positions while riding roughshod over Palestinian rights might sound tempting to many, but it is actually a recipe for perpetuating conflict and Israeli insecurity for yet more generations.

Finally, to Netanyahu the shape-shifter, the deliverer of a historic peace. That would mean belatedly acknowledging the 1967 lines and ceasing to introduce expansionist territorial demands via the backdoor of “security needs”. More significantly, it would mean acknowledging that a collective history, narrative and set of rights is not something reserved only for the Jewish people. Either one must drop all talk of recognizing a Jewish state or one must deal with the legitimacy of a second narrative, a Palestinian narrative. Whether in relation to the Palestinians in the territories or the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, Netanyahu’s entire discourse and actions, including his current promotion of the Prawer plan, indicate that he has crossed no Rubicon of understanding.

All of which means that peace will probably have to await a new Israeli leadership and/or mindset. But it does not render the U.S. peace effort a wasted exercise.

Netanyahu’s first coalition (1996-9) could not bear the strains of U.S.-brokered talks with the PLO (Wye River); his second government (2009-13) was a far smoother ride absent serious peace talks. If Bibi 3.0 faces a focused U.S. peace push (in which territorial issues are placed front and center), a Palestinian leadership that is smart about when to deploy both 'yes' and 'no’, and a domestic politics demanding more efforts for peace (admittedly all big ifs) – then the forty-plus remaining months of the Obama Administration could challenge Israeli rejectionism more than its dismissive responses to this week’s talks would have us believe.

This commentary was originally published in “Haaretz” on 1 August 2013.

Daniel Levy is the Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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President, US/Middle East Project