Netanyahu left without any cards to play

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated several times the principle of reciprocity in talks with Palestinians, yet he himself is willing to offer them nothing.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attends the weekly Cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office, Jerusalem, Dec. 3, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Sebastian Scheiner.

Dec 6, 2017

Every rookie cadet in the foreign service knows that in diplomacy, as in business, there are no free lunches. When a seasoned businessman like President Donald Trump grants Israel the coveted US recognition of Jerusalem as its capital, he expects a quid pro quo. That is why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered members of his government to lie low and, to the extent possible, abstain from crowing over the expected news from the White House. As a former furniture salesman (Netanyahu once worked in marketing for an Israeli furniture firm), the prime minister knows that an overly enthusiastic buyer jacks up the price of the goods. Netanyahu can assume that Trump will not risk upsetting his Saudi clients over the sensitive issue of Jerusalem — holy to both Muslims and Jews — just to please his Jewish and evangelical supporters/constituents. No one gives away such a gift, and with a 50% discount, at that. The first recognition by a foreign nation of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state will come with a price tag, and it won’t be cheap.

Trump’s envoy Jared Kushner, speaking on Dec. 3 at the Saban Forum in Washington, indicated that his father-in-law’s administration was preparing another pricey gift for Israel. The president’s adviser told participants at the prestigious gathering that many countries in the region, traditional enemies of the Jewish state, now view Israel as a potential partner given their shared enemies: Iran and the Islamic State. He noted that the US Mideast peace team, which he leads, was focusing on efforts to implement what the countries in the region want — “economic progress, peace for their people.”

However, hatred of Iran, love of Israel and even covert intelligence support are not the only ingredients of regional peace. “If we’re going to try to create more stability in the region as a whole, you have to solve this issue,” Kushner said, referring to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. The Saudis, Egyptians, Qataris, Jordanians, Emiratis, “everyone we’ve spoken with,” all view a solution to the Palestinian problem as important.

Indeed, with all due respect to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and despite the importance of efforts being invested by the president of the United States, two additional partners are needed to advance resolution of the Palestinian problem: Palestinians and Israelis. Shortly after being elected prime minister for the first time in 1996, Netanyahu announced that negotiations with the Palestinians would be based on a simple equation: "If they give, they will get; if they don’t give, they won’t get.” In a campaign message prior to the 1999 elections, Netanyahu accused the left wing of abandoning the principle of “reciprocal peace.” He pledged to renew negotiations with the Palestinians over Israel’s permanent borders right after the elections. Almost in the same breath, he promised “to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.” At a press conference in 2005 announcing his run for the Likud Party leadership, Netanyahu boasted, “I have already proven in the past my ability to conduct tough negotiations vis-a-vis the Palestinians. I determined a principle with which you’re familiar — the principle of reciprocity. They give, they get. … By insisting on reciprocity, I stopped the wholesale compromises over the Land of Israel.”

Netanyahu has had more than one opportunity to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians his way, i.e., according to the “if they give” principle. Over the eight-year term of President Barack Obama and almost a year of the Trump presidency, we have heard over and over what the Palestinians must give and what they will not get in return: They have to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, to allow Israelis to settle on Palestinian lands and to fight Hamas. In return, they will not get an independent state, they will not get an inch of the Israeli-annexed city of Jerusalem, they will not control the borders of their nonexistent state and, of course, discussion of returning a single Palestinian refugee to Israel is a nonstarter.

When late PLO chief Yasser Arafat conducted negotiations with Israel over a permanent peace agreement, the Israeli right said he was “not a partner” for peace because he was unwilling to pay the price for a deal with Israel. His successor, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, is also dubbed a nonpartner because he lacks the ability to pay this price. The pervasive view in Israel is that Arafat failed because he was too strong, and Abbas failed because he was too weak. Since Netanyahu is having to divide his time between Cabinet meetings and meetings with police anti-corruption investigators, not only does he not want to pay the price of an agreement with the Palestinians, he is unable to do so.

When Netanyahu was at the peak of his power, he could have promoted a regional peace agreement under the auspices of the Obama administration, but he didn’t want to. With Netanyahu at the nadir of his power, he does not want to, nor is he able to push forward anything, big or small. The reaction by Netanyahu’s opponents on the right to every attempt “to give” the Palestinians something or other, and even to give Trump anything, is already prepared: “In recent years, there’s been a terrible deterioration in the state. … The State of Israel is plummeting to the lowest ebb of corruption. We are the second most corrupt state in the West. The World Bank never wrote this about anyone (else) — not about my government, not [Yitzhak] Rabin’s, not [Menachem] Begin’s … and if we continue this way, we will be No. 1.” All rights to this remark are reserved to Netanyahu in the above-mentioned 2005 press conference. They were said in reaction to the plan advanced by the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to pull Israeli troops and settlements out of the Gaza Strip, claiming it was designed to distract public opinion and shield the prime minister from police investigations of suspected corruption.

The Israeli right claimed at the time that “the deeper the questioning [of Sharon by police], the deeper the uprooting [of Israelis from Gaza],” in the words of former Knesset member Zvi Hendel. Today, one can paraphrase that slogan and say that the extent of the legislation being orchestrated by the right against Israeli law enforcement — as seen with the Recommendation law preventing police from recommending to indict — is commensurate with the extent of criminal investigations against Netanyahu. Netanyahu rightfully accused Sharon at the time of making concessions to the Palestinians without getting anything in return. Sharon pushed through a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza without seeking an agreement with the Palestinians nor the support of Arab states. An opportunity has now arisen to right that wrong. The diatribe Netanyahu directed at Sharon in 2005 is all the more apt now: “The Likud and the state need a leader who will stop the corruption and work to heal the rift among the people.”

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