Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that the diplomatic process would resume was received in the Likud Party with suspicious indifference.
One would expect that the party, which had made a sharp turn to the right in the recent elections, would raise Cain at the thought of the prime minister entering a round of talks whose final target is partitioning the land.
The relative quiet currently enjoyed by Netanyahu in his party is not a sign that Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon has adopted Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s worldview, or that Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin has found the light at the Peace Now movement encounters. The reason mainly stems from a deep understanding within the Likud that Netanyahu has not crossed the Rubicon regarding the two-state solution and has no intention of leading the way toward the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of 1967 borders.
As opposed to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or other high-level officials who left the Likud after abandoning the Greater Israel concept, Netanyahu does not show similar signs. At the very beginning of his third term of office, he is not seen in his party as someone about to follow in the footsteps of former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Livni, who turned the two-state vision into their main banner. From Elkin to Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, the prime minister is perceived as someone who was merely dragged into the diplomatic process.
“Bibi [Netanyahu] is not interested in, and is not emotionally capable of, going for a permanent arrangement with the Palestinians,” a high-level Likud official tells Al-Monitor. “It is not part of his political tools. In no election campaign has he even mentioned the two-state vision — on the contrary. So suddenly, all at once, he should change his stripes? I don’t believe it. He simply needs time.”
Deputy Minister Ofir Akunis says similar things openly. He had served in the past as Netanyahu’s spokesman and is well acquainted with the prime minister’s opinions and modus operandi.
“I don’t believe that Netanyahu will go for a process that will splinter the Likud, and that is what such a course of action will do,” argues Akunis, who belongs to the majority of the Likud-Beiteinu faction that opposes the two-state concept. This common Likud state of mind has great importance when we try to answer the million-dollar question: Has Netanyahu undergone the ideological change that will enable him to lead the State of Israel to a historic peace agreement with the Palestinians?
Even coalition members outside the Likud party do not seem especially worried at the moment. Bennett and HaBayit HaYehudi Party members, who are physically and spiritually rooted deep in the settlements, continue to sit pretty in Netanyahu’s government even after the latter’s official announcement on resuming negotiations. From the day he became part of the government, Bennett reckoned that Netanyahu may be forced to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians, but that he would not reach an agreement with them. Therefore, he has no reason to vacate his place in the government for Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich and the Labor party.
A high-level Likud official explains this feeling that has prevailed also over the last four years, since the 2009 Bar Ilan speech by Netanyahu at the beginning of his second term of office. While the prime minister did speak explicitly then, for the first time, about “two states for two nations,” he has shown no signs of a deep yearning to realize that vision in the long time that has since passed.
What's more, in all his years as prime minister, Netanyahu has never raised the diplomatic banner at his own initiative. In his first two terms of office, Netanyahu proved that he was not a leader of dramatic, courageous acts. He himself boasted, in a speech to the Knesset plenum in October 2012, that he did not wage “unnecessary wars.” This statement immediately led to reactions that he also hadn’t made “unnecessary peace.” Netanyahu’s second term of office was a magnificent performance of political survival and intensive preoccupation with Iranian nuclearization.
On Israel’s last Independence Day, when asked how he wants to be remembered as prime minister, Netanyahu answered, “as the leader who preserved Israel's security.” So what has changed? Most likely, not much. The diplomatic process he is partner to now was forced on him, and he will use it mainly to play for time. The first stage of the talks will last nine months — precious time that will grant him vital political breathing space.
In addition, Netanyahu has seen in recent weeks that preoccupation with diplomatic matters has made him become relevant again. Suddenly he has a clear and central spot on the public agenda — two things he lacked until now. Instead of seeing Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Bennett starring in the headlines, Netanyahu returned to the front of the stage under excellent terms, from his point of view. His coalition is stable for now, American pressure will decrease, the Europeans will calm down and he is not taking any risks at the moment.
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.