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Former Shin Bet chief: Diplomatic stalemate keeps Bibi in power

Yaakov Peri tells Al-Monitor that the Israeli government is stable since the outgoing US administration has formulated its legacy and there is no diplomatic initiative to be opposed by right-wing coalition members.

“The Americans have given up on negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” said Knesset member Yaakov Peri, the former director of the Shin Bet, in an interview with Al-Monitor. In his assessment, the closer President Barack Obama’s term comes to an end, the less chance of American involvement in a regional diplomatic process.

Peri served as minister of science and space in the previous government. Just before the March 17 elections, however, he said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had deceived him by giving him reason to think that he was planning to make a significant diplomatic move. Peri added that the current stalemate on that front will bring stability to the right-wing coalition and allow Netanyahu to survive as prime minister. Despite the current conventional wisdom throughout the political system, Peri believes that Knesset member Avigdor Liberman, the chairman of Yisrael Beitenu, is likely to join the government if it survives the approval of its budget for 2016.

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  Is the agreement with Iran as disastrous as so many politicians say it is, including the head of your own party, Yair Lapid?

Peri:  The way things work in Israel is this: When a deal is signed, a report is presented or an international agreement reached, first there is an overwhelming wave of defamatory comments, such as “It is a bad deal” and “It is disastrous for Israel.” That is what happened with the Iran deal, and it happened with the Locker Report, too. Only after these statements are made, people begin to ask whether anyone actually looked into the alternatives. Is freezing the Iranian nuclear program for what could amount to 10 years really so bad? In practical terms, there are some good clauses in the agreement with Iran. I also agree that it is not an ideal agreement. Due to our troubled relationship with the United States, we weren’t a partner in this agreement. A better agreement could have been reached. I say that it’s a good thing we have an agreement, but it could have been a better agreement.

There was commotion after the release of the Locker Report, too. I believe that it was one of the boldest reports we have seen. It broke with pre-established norms, even if not everything it contained was correct and possible. The discussion about the natural gas outline also raised a tumult. What I say is that there are major issues at hand, and what stands out most in dealing with them is a lack of leadership. The public is being tossed something, and then the children are left to squabble over it. After all, who created the Locker Committee? Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid, when he was the finance minister. And what did Netanyahu do next? Instead of restoring calm once the report was released, he let everyone fight over it.

The story of the natural gas deal between the gas companies and the state is the same. It was tossed to the public, and there is plenty of populism surrounding it. What did Netanyahu do? He let the two rival camps — the tycoons, or “haves,” and the “have-nots” — fight among themselves. That is why what is happening here is so severe. I consider the State of Israel to be a kingdom in need of a king. In this case, the gas is just lying in the sea ground, but no serious company is willing to approach it. That’s the way things are done here: Let the people squabble among themselves.

Al-Monitor:  After Operation Protective Edge, you took steps to promote a diplomatic initiative between Israel and the Palestinians, claiming that a rare window of opportunity had just opened. It is now a year later. Has that window closed?

Peri:  It opened gradually at the time, and is now closing gradually. It is a kind of pincer movement. There are indications of Saudi Arabia growing closer to the United States after the crisis surrounding the nuclear deal. Since the relationship between the United States and Israel is hardly at its peak, I do not think that the Americans will urge the Saudis to sit down with Israel, particularly with Israel showing such passivity to the very idea of negotiations. And something else happened, too. Despite claims that Saudi Arabia and Israel share common interests regarding a nuclear Iran and the war against radical Islam, we are now seeing certain factors on the Saudi side providing support to Sunni extremists. With the nuclear deal in place, it is possible that the Saudis will provide more support to radical Islam in order to strike back at the Iranians and assault the economic prosperity that they anticipate.

Al-Monitor:  Do you foresee American involvement in the Middle East in the near future?

Peri:  As President Obama’s time in office comes to an end, there is less of an incentive for the Americans to get involved in the diplomatic process here. Obama’s foreign policy legacy will be the thawing of relations with Cuba and the agreement with Iran. Given the bitter experience and difficulties that [Secretary of State] John Kerry had during negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, it doesn’t look like that will be the direction that the administration will now take.

I believe that the Americans have given up. When I look at the Israeli leadership, with its obvious and stated unwillingness to participate in the diplomatic process, I do not foresee any renewed and focused American effort in the final days of the Obama administration. It has concluded that the two partners, Netanyahu and [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas, are both problematic. In other words, there is a lack of both players and motivation. Obama has already reached the point where he has to pull his team together to present his foreign policy achievements, and he does have something to present. There are also fewer, if any, American troops arriving home every week in coffins.

Al-Monitor:  As we mark the 10th anniversary of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, it seems as if the center-left leadership is breaking right and expressing its reservations about the disengagement. For example, Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog called it a mistake, and Lapid is expressing clear right-wing positions. How do you explain this?

Peri:  Israel’s political system, which was considered center-left, is shifting sharply to the right. It is not because of some right-wing ideology. Neither Lapid nor Herzog align themselves with the ideological right. Anyone looking to run for the position of prime minister in the future can see that most of the public is positioned on the right side of the political map, while fewer people identify with the center-left. That is the audience that any potential candidate should address, explaining to them on Judgment Day why he acted the way he did.

Al-Monitor:  Liberman, Lapid and other political players believe that the elections will be moved up to as soon as early 2016. Do you share that assessment?

Peri:  I don’t share that assessment, particularly if Bibi Netanyahu manages to pass the budget. And there is a chance that he will get it passed, because he is giving his coalition partners whatever he has to give them. He will let [Finance Minister Moshe] Kahlon pass the budget his own way, which will include a housing program and a deal concerning bank reform. Once the budget passes, the government will have bought itself at least another year until the next budget.

There are two scenarios that could bring down this government. One is the budget, and the other is an ideological dispute over the diplomatic process. As I’ve already noted, there is no expectation of any political discord over the diplomatic process in the near future, ensuring that the government will enjoy a period of stability.

Furthermore, many people disagree with me, but I believe that Liberman is on his way into the government. I see how uncomfortable he feels in the opposition. The opposition never really embraced his Yisrael Beitenu party. Liberman gives frequent interviews in which he screams about how bad and incompetent Netanyahu is. On the other hand, Yisrael Beitenu did not support civil partnerships [earlier this month, the party was absent from the Knesset during a vote on Yesh Atid’s proposed law regarding civil partnerships and marriage], which was a banner issue for them. And Liberman is making all sorts of deals with Netanyahu, as he did with the Judicial Appointments Committee.

Furthermore, Liberman is unwilling to vote in support of anything that the Arab parties bring up. He is unwilling to collaborate with Meretz, either. But who is the opposition? The Joint List, Meretz, Yesh Atid and the Zionist Camp. That is why I have a feeling that once the budget passes, Liberman will go back to the foreign ministry. He will get a ministry for Knesset member Orly Levy, too, as well as a few other positions. But Liberman is Liberman. He is unpredictable. If Netanyahu succeeds in bringing Liberman into the government, this coalition could stay in power until the end of its term.

Al-Monitor:  What about another round of fighting with Hamas? There are many assessments suggesting that this will happen soon.

Peri:  At present, there is nothing to motivate Hamas to get into another round of fighting. At the same time, the Islamic State has not yet reached a position in which they are ready for a conflict. That is why, given that no wars between countries are anticipated and given the easing of tensions that the agreement with Iran creates in the region, I don’t think we will face another military round in the next two years. Obviously, it is impossible to commit to anything like that, but it looks like Israel will have a period of calm if it continues doing what it has been doing until now. In other words, be vigilant and on the ready, and it must avoid getting involved in the internal affairs of neighboring states.

Al-Monitor:  What’s it like in the opposition? Have you gotten used to it yet?

Peri:  Yair Lapid has been very active, not only when it comes to giving interviews with the media, but also in proposing extensive legislation. He gives his opinion frequently on just about any issue at hand, and he is trying to expand the narrow approach that characterized Yesh Atid in the last term. There can be no doubt that he is looking to the future. He learned a massive amount serving in the government. He is constantly developing and growing.

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