Almost three months have gone by since US Secretary of State John Kerry announced at a news conference in Jordan the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and very little is known in political circles about their nature. Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni — who is in charge of negotiations — does not share information about her talks with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, even with members of her own Hatnua Party, which she chairs. Livni has not volunteered an iota of information in private conversations with her faction’s Knesset members either. She will only say the talks are serious, and she is under the impression that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sincere in his intent to achieve a peace agreement.
Over the past three months, Livni has become a regular guest at Netanyahu’s office, spending many hours there discussing the negotiations with him and his confidant, attorney Yitzhak Molcho.
The silence from the negotiating front and Livni’s strengthening ties with Netanyahu have set off a flurry of rumors in right-wing circles in recent weeks, claiming that Netanyahu is moving speedily toward a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians. Other than the two signs mentioned above, the basis for the assumption that negotiations are progressing is unclear.
What is certainly progressing is the clock, whose hands are moving in giant leaps toward the deadline set by the Americans for the renewed negotiations — a total of nine months. This means that at the end of the Knesset’s winter session — which starts on Oct. 14 and ends in March 2014 — we will find out what happened with the talks. These are, thus, critical months for the process.
Meanwhile, the ambiguity surrounding the talks enables Netanyahu to open the winter session in relative calm, at least in terms of diplomacy-related issues, with leading right-wing elements not yet having a smoking gun to wave at him and threaten to dismantle his coalition. Nonetheless, news of the vicious murder of Col. (Res.) Seraiah Ofer on Oct. 11 in the Jordan Valley provided a reminder of Netanyahu’s fragile ideological standing in the coalition and within his own Likud Party.
First to react was Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel of HaBayit HaYehudi, who issued a statement demanding that the government “put an immediate stop to the diplomatic negotiations, which haven’t achieved a thing except the spilling of Jewish blood.” Ariel explained, “We’re dealing with another lowly murderous terror attack, which proves once again that 'peace' talks really mean 'peace victims.'”
Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin called on Netanyahu to stop the release of the Palestinian ''terrorists'' and decide on the strengthening of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria. Elkin, among the leader of the Likud’s hawkish camp, explained that the murder in the Jordan Valley was the result of Israeli goodwill gestures that “the Palestinians interpret as a sign of weakness.”
These comments from the right wing in reaction to a murderous terror attack are — of course — not unusual, but they reflect the atmosphere in the distinctly right-wing coalition and ultra-right-wing Knesset faction in which Netanyahu is trapped. On Sept. 23, in an interview with Al-Monitor, coalition chairman and Knesset member Yariv Levin predicted that if Netanyahu reaches a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians, he will not be able to continue as prime minister.
Netanyahu preferred to ignore what could rightly be considered a clear threat against him from one of his confidants, whose job includes providing the prime minister with peace and quiet in his ruling coalition. Why? Because he, too, recognizes his internal weakness.
To what extent is Netanyahu influenced by this? If he intends to preserve the right-wing coalition and the Likud Party in their current form, all such remarks signal what could befall him.
In his speeches at the UN on Oct. 1 and at Bar-Ilan University (the second Bar Ilan speech on Oct. 6), Netanyahu placed the Iranian issue at the top of his list of priorities and ignored the Palestinian issue almost completely. He was awarded with positive feedback from the right wing. Danny Dayan, the former head of the West Bank settlements council, tweeted that it was Netanyahu’s best speech as prime minister. According to senior Likud members, in his upcoming speech on the Knesset podium on Oct. 14, Netanyahu does not intend to provide a surprise declaration about progress in talks with the Palestinians and plans to stick to the Iranian agenda.
So where is Netanyahu going? Is he leading Livni and the Americans astray to buy time? Or perhaps he has already crossed the Rubicon, as is being rumored in the right wing? All this assumes, of course, that the Palestinians are conducting serious negotiations in good faith.
If Netanyahu is — indeed — interested in a historic move and is heading there, threats from the right wing are not supposed to stop him. The Knesset’s winter session and the expected political developments open up other options for realizing this diplomatic vision. The ultra-Orthodox Shas Party in the era following the demise of its spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef on Oct. 7 — under the leadership of Knesset member Aryeh Deri — could become a key actor in a future peace process. Deri could bring the Shas Party back to the days of its political moderation, if presented with the right conditions for joining the Netanyahu government.
The November Labor Party primaries, too, could be taken into account in future coalition changes. If Labor chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich is re-elected as party leader, she might reconsider her refusal to join the government — if she is convinced that the peace talks are serious and Netanyahu is in political trouble. If Knesset member Isaac (Buji) Herzog is chosen to replace her, Netanyahu will find it much easier to bring the Labor and Shas parties into the coalition.
Thus, Netanyahu’s biggest problem was, and remains, his Likud Party. He will be able to change the elements of the coalition, but it is uncertain that he has the emotional wherewithal to split up the Likud.
Mazal Mualem is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and formerly a chief political analyst for Maariv and Haaretz. She also previously worked for Bamachane, the Israeli army's weekly newspaper.