Netanyahu readies alibi for collapse of peace talks

The bickering between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and HaBayit HaYehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett is the warm-up for the main event, when the US-brokered peace talks collapse.

al-monitor A combination photo shows Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking during a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, Davos, Jan. 23, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Ruben Sprich.
Ben Caspit

Ben Caspit


Topics covered

right wing, political conflict, naftali bennett, mahmoud abbas, israeli settlements, israeli politics, israel, benjamin netanyahu

Jan 28, 2014

Israel is defined — and rightly so — as the only democracy in the Middle East. Despite being threatened by a rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox bloc and a radical right that prefers Jewish religious law over it, Israeli democracy is vibrant. Total and unassailable, sometimes it goes as far as wild exaggeration, as we saw once again over the past week. The following is a summary of the events.

On Jan. 24 during the Davos summit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a briefing in which he declared that he had no intention of evacuating settlements or uprooting even a single settler from his home. The address elicited a coast-to-coast uproar to include the Palestinians, the dovish wing of the coalition (chiefly Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid) and, naturally, the Americans. The team of US Secretary of State John Kerry was livid. Netanyahu’s statement undercut the negotiations that are at their most sensitive and critical juncture.

Between Saturday night and Sunday, Washington exerted heavy pressure on the Prime Minister's Office until one of Netanyahu’s senior associates appeared and told a news agency that it was possible that in the setting of a permanent arrangement, Israeli settlers would live under Palestinian sovereignty and that the Israeli settlements would remain intact despite being under Palestinian rule. In other words, the settlements will not be an obstacle to peace. There’s no need to be alarmed.

Maybe the Americans took it in stride, but among the members of the Israeli right the exact opposite happened. An all-out war broke out. The right, which considers Netanyahu to be its leader, rose up in droves against him. Four deputy ministers lashed out at him. But the one that topped them all was Minister of Economy and Trade and Chairman of the hawkish HaBayit HaYehudi Party Naftali Bennett, who made the following unbelievable remark: The statements ascribed to Netanyahu, Bennett said, suggest that he “lost his ideological bearing.” I cannot recall of a more serious statement made by a minister against a sitting prime minister.

Netanyahu and Bennett have a long history of bad blood. The latter served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff when he was chairman of the opposition. Bennett is intimately familiar with how quickly Netanyahu loses his cool. It seems to me that this time they both lost their cool at the same time, breaking their own previous speed records.

Once Bennett’s remark was publicized, a public spat between him and Netanyahu ensued. The following is a summary: In the wake of Bennett’s remarks, Netanyahu’s associates accused him of patently and directly compromising Israel’s interests. On Monday, Jan. 27, the world commemorated the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, they said, and instead of letting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) come off as a racist on that day, in view of his statement that he would not allow Jewish settlers to live in his state, Bennett shifted the attention to the Israeli side, thereby falling right into the Palestinian trap. This is according to Netanyahu’s associates.

Bennett responded by saying that it was astounding that even after a day of media briefings, Netanyahu still would not disavow the terrible statement to the effect that he would abandon settlements and pull out of areas in favor of the Palestinians while leaving settlers behind. Netanyahu’s associates retorted, saying that if Bennett were unhappy he could tender his resignation, adding derisively that given that he had no record to show so far, he would presumably opt to remain in the government. Bennett feigned innocence and wondered why he should resign if all he did was to spoil a spin doctored by the Prime Minister's Office. The latter responded that Bennett was not being collegial. So Bennett and his cronies wailed, saying that if Netanyahu had planned to entrap Abbas and released a “trial balloon,” the prime minister should have kept his ministers, including Bennett, in the loop. Netanyahu’s associate responded to that, saying that Bennett’s conduct was proof that it was impossible and pointless to keep him in the loop.

Ultimately, so it was leaked, Netanyahu plans to summon Bennett for a talk and a scathing reprimand. The problem is that as of Jan. 28, Bennett was stuck in Krakow with a delegation of 60 Knesset members who commemorated the International Holocaust Remembrance Day at Auschwitz. It seems to me that Bennett prefers to remain in frigid Poland rather than return to Jerusalem, which he feels to be equally frigid. On the other hand, the verbal mutiny he declared against the prime minister should make him more popular in the polls and shift voters from Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s camp to his own party. That’s the pervasive mindset in Israel: The only thing that really interests Israeli leaders is the very next public opinion poll. Peace, negotiations, the fight over legitimacy, the positions in light of the expected accusations between Israel and the Palestinians — all these, with all due respect, are far less important.

It’s been a while since we saw such an efficient, active, hardworking, creative and resolute mediator for a deal that would not happen. Kerry’s problem is that he has no partners to his agreement. The parties he shuttles between don’t have the goods to deliver.

During the last days of Ehud Olmert’s government, when the then-Israeli premier drafted the very generous peace proposal that he was going to submit to Abbas, then-director of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, warned him that there was no chance that Abbas would take him up on the offer. The Palestinian leader, the Israeli intelligence officer told the prime minister, was not ready. He is unable to say yes. He cannot make a deal. He does not have the infrastructure for that, nor does he have the courage or motivation to do it. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert listened but nevertheless presented his plan to Abbas. To date, to the extent that we know, an affirmative response has yet to come.

The situation is no different today. Various Israeli intelligence officials are unanimous in their opinion that the Palestinians are unable to reach a permanent status agreement, end the conflict and present no more demands to Israel. If Israeli intelligence had been requested to make a similar evaluation about the Israeli side, the result, I believe, would have been the same. Israel is not ready either. There is no feasibility. There is no political constellation that would allow for a genuine agreement with the Palestinians. The Likud-Beitenu Party, which consists of just 31 seats (out of 120), is controlled by the right. Liberman’s shift to the moderate side is purely tactical, not strategic. The Israeli public has no trust in the Palestinian partner. The historic peace camp has grown weak and almost vanished. And the most important unknown in this equation, Benjamin Netanyahu, might very well implode if he is required to make a real decision.

It was Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, who persuaded Abbas to agree to have Israeli settlements in his state in the setting of an arrangement. It happened more than a year ago following a long series of talks between the two. When asked about it today, the Palestinian president remains obfuscated. Once he mutters something in favor of this and once he grumbles something against it. If that were the obstacle to peace, he would agree. There is no real reason to justify the existence of dozens of Arab Palestinian localities in Israel while preventing the existence of Jewish localities in Palestine.

The thing is that we could not be farther away from the moment of decision than from where we are today. The American paper, which was first reported here [in Al-Monitor], is expected to consist of five to seven points. Among other things, it will deal with Jerusalem (capital of both states), the area of the Palestinian state (based on the 1967 lines and land swap) and the Palestinian refugee issue (they will have no right to return to Israel) and, of course, security matters. The more time goes by, the smaller the chances that this will be a detailed and voluminous document. Notwithstanding, it is likely to contain many powerful mines — chief among them the mentioning of the “1967 lines” as a major point of reference — which can crush the coalition in Israel and also provoke mayhem on the other side.

Is Netanyahu’s coalition in jeopardy? Does the prime minister intend to remove Bennett and his party and introduce the Labor Party under its moderate leader Isaac Herzog instead? Can Bibi (Netanyahu) dissolve the Likud Party and do what the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did with the Kadima Party? Can he move to the center and burst into the annals of history with some kind of an arrangement with the Palestinians? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions continues to remain negative. Maybe there will be an American paper in the end, which both sides will accept with reservations. And maybe the negotiations will be extended by nine to 12 months. But then what? That won’t lead us to peace.

Netanyahu exposed his intentions during his spat with Bennett. From his standpoint, these are merely preparations for the “accusation game” that will break out at some point. Netanyahu does not have a significant core of support within the ranks of the Likud Party which will allow him to splinter. He does not have the stable, rock-hard personality that will allow him to ditch his political base. Netanyahu’s ideology will not let him believe in a genuine move and see it through.

All he is interested in is that at the end of the game, when all hell breaks loose, he will be accused of nothing. All he wants is to go back home, safe and sound. And that home, if possible, should be the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. 

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