Can Netanyahu go all the way in peace talks? And does it matter?


Raphael Ahren – Times of Israel News

Conventional wisdom says the gaps are too wide, but analysts believe the PM is ready for a demilitarized ‘Palestine,’ or an interim deal. And if all that fails, he’s hoping to prevail in the blame game

There is ample reason to believe that the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, getting underway Monday in Washington, will end in failure, well before the nine months slated for them are up.

But analysts say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s insistence on going into talks and seeking to reach a deal, bluff or not, may well leave Israel in a commanding position if the negotiations do indeed fail.

Conventional wisdom says that the “direct final status negotiations,” as they are referred to by the US State Department, are doomed to fall apart because the maximum Netanyahu can offer is far less than Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can accept.

However, Netanyahu has taken significant, and what he has painted as personally painful, steps to resume the peace process with the Palestinians. On Sunday, he pushed the release of 104 Palestinian terrorists through a dramatic cabinet meeting.

“This is an incomparably difficult decision; it is painful for the bereaved families and it is painful for the entire nation and it is also very painful for me,” he wrote in a letter to the Israeli public published before the meeting Saturday.

He also insisted on advancing a new Basic Law that stipulates that any peace agreement would have to be confirmed by a public referendum, a move clearly intended to protect his right flank in case the negotiations actually do succeed.

All of this might indicate that Netanyahu has come around, and seeks to end the conflict by creating a Palestinian state. But does he really mean it when he says his goal is preventing the creation of a binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, as he vowed last week? Does he really believe that he will be able to reach an agreement, fully aware that his positions (no return to 1967 lines, no division of Jerusalem, no right of return) are unacceptable to the other side?

As his personal envoy Yitzhak Molcho and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni make their way to Washington, Netanyahu’s true intentions regarding the upcoming negotiations remain shrouded in mystery. Even some of his confidants dare not guess what is really going on in his heart of hearts.

“There are moments in which I wake up and think that Netanyahu means to go all the way to a two-state solution. And there are mornings when I wake up and I think that Netanyahu is bluffing the whole world. And I suspect exactly the same thing happens to Netanyahu himself,” said Dani Dayan, the chief foreign envoy of the pro-settler Yesha Council.

“He still holds all the cards and he hasn’t decided yet how to distribute them, to go all the way or not. He maneuvers and everyone thinks he already made a strategic decision and now he’s implementing it. I think he will make the strategic decisions when he’s further into the process. Until then, he will keep all options open.”

Well-placed officials, even those close to Netanyahu and with experience in peace negotiations, said their guess about Israel’s negotiation goal or strategy was as good as anyone’s. “I got nothing I can share right now, maybe it’ll be clearer in a couple of days,” one Netanyahu protégé said. “I have no idea what’s happening there,” sighed a former official involved in previous peace talks.

According to Uzi Arad, a professor of government at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center and Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, there is no reason to doubt that Netanyahu was sincere in his famous Bar-Ilan speech. “If the Palestinian were to address the Israelis’ concerns, then of course Netanyahu could conceive the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” he said.

Yoaz Hendel, who headed the Public Diplomacy Directorate at the Prime Minister’s Office from 2011 until 2012, also believes that Netanyahu is genuinely interested in preventing “the creation of a binational state,” as the prime minister declared repeatedly in recent weeks.

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“Four years ago, Netanyahu was standing at the podium at Bar-Ilan University and became the first leader of the right wing who recognized the Palestinians’ right to have their own state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean,” said Hendel, who now heads the Institute of Zionist Strategy. “He crossed the Rubicon and afterward even agreed to a settlement freeze. He’s done it before – it’s wouldn’t be the first time he has done things that he used to be completely against.”

While everyone with two feet on the ground knows that a full-fledged peace agreement and an end of the conflict currently isn’t attainable – as the gaps on questions of borders, Jerusalem and refugees are too wide – Netanyahu might think about an interim solution, Hendel said.

The areas in the West Bank autonomously ruled by the PA – Areas A and B – are “already a kind of a state” and Netanyahu theoretically could agree to a Palestinian state in provisional borders there, he added, and international consensus sees Israel annexing the major settlement blocs under any agreement. The real problem is what to do with the rest of Area C, where some 100,000 Jewish settlers live. “I cannot see any scenario in which Netanyahu evacuates those people, just to gamble on a peace agreement that no one can guarantee will survive,” Hendel said.

What would Netanyahu ask in return for the recognition of a Palestinian state in Areas A, B and perhaps small parts of C? Hendel says he’s not sure what his former boss aims for, but he suggests annexing the settlement blocs. “Just think about the fact that he will be able to build in Efrat, Maaleh Adumim and Ariel. It would be a huge achievement,” Hendel said.

The idea of partial agreements is also popular with other Mideast analysts. “In the Middle East, I feel that whenever it’s all or nothing, it’s always nothing,” said David Makovsky, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s project on the peace process. “If they try to do it all, they may fail. But if they try to settle for less and don’t overreach, they may achieve things.”

According to a prominent leader of Israel’s right wing, who asked to remain anonymous, Netanyahu is approaching the peace talks with two possibilities in mind. Firstly, if the unthinkable happens and the two sides reach an agreement, he will enter the history books as the man who brought peace to the Middle East, even if it means a withdrawal from much territory and a division of Jerusalem, he added.

“But his working assumption is that this will not happen and that the Palestinians, as always, will cause the negotiations to collapse,” the source said. “In this case, he expects to play up the blame game. In such a scenario, Netanyahu hopes for a period of quiet from the American administration.”

It’s a win-win strategy for Netanyahu: “If the negotiations miraculously succeed, it’s a win for him. If the negotiations fail, it’s also a win for him because he believes the Americans will blame the Palestinians,” the source said.

Netanyahu thinks ahead, this source said. By pushing through the release of the Palestinian prisoners, he created the image of a strong leader willing to antagonize his people and his government for the sake of peace. “We made painful concessions even before the talks started. It’s the Palestinians who aren’t ready for peace,” he may argue nine months from now, turning a diplomatic stillbirth into a child who did no wrong.

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