Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to surprise us, and presumably not only by bringing about a split in the Labor Knesset faction, which lifted the political threat that had been hanging over his government. Now, his coalition restabilized, Netanyahu must address external threats, starting with growing international pressure on Israel.
Since he rejected President Barack Obama's proposal to suspend settlement construction for 90 days of intensive negotiations over the future border between Israel and Palestine, Netanyahu has been depicted internationally as an opponent of peace. His rival, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, has been collecting nations that recognize Palestinian independence, claiming that only Israel is preventing its realization. This weekend, Abbas ruled out the possibility of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, without Israeli agreement, but also warned of a new intifada in September in the absence of such agreement.
Netanyahu needs a countermeasure that will get Abbas off his back, depict Israel as an avid supporter of peace and, if possible, also paint the Palestinians as having yet again missed an opportunity to reach an agreement.
But Netanyahu's ability to offer compromises and territorial withdrawals in the West Bank are limited. Any territorial concession, even a theoretical offer of concession, could cost him the coalition he just shored up. What's a prime minister to do?
One option is to adopt the concept advanced by the Reut Institute, under which Israel would upgrade the PA's political status and recognize it as an independent state within its existing borders. The state that would be established in the Palestinian urban enclaves would negotiate with Israel over the remaining West Bank territories and all the other issues of the final-status agreement. This concept is built into the second phase of the so-called "Road Map," which called for the creation of a Palestinian state within provisional borders.
Among those who favor this idea are Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon. By announcing his support in principle for the establishment of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu also implied that he supports this idea. Those behind it argue that it would eliminate all of the threats and dangers that the Palestinians pose for Israel: the demographic danger, the danger of the PA's collapse and concomitant reimposition on Israel of the burden of the occupation and the threat of a binational state (the one-state solution). The Palestinians would have a state, whose citizens would have the right to vote in its elections. The demographic threat would then be over. And the greater the number of nations recognizing the Palestinian state, the smaller the danger of the PA's collapse and merger with Israel. Perhaps that explains why Israel has responded to the wave of international announcements of recognition of the Palestinian state with limp protests.
Right-wing figures, with Netanyahu leading the pack, are against even the tiniest territorial concession or withdrawal before the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people and declare an end to the conflict and to their claims. Lieberman's proposal for an interim arrangement is an attempt to pour content into the form of this idea.
Abbas has opposed a state with provisional borders in the past and can be expected to do so again, even if the offer comes from Netanyahu. If he changes his mind and says yes, Israel will come out looking good. If he refuses, Israeli public relations will have a field day: We offered them a state again, and they didn't want it. That's the best place for Netanyahu to be, with the Palestinians once more in the role of the nay-sayers and Israel not having to make payments in the form of territory or dismantling settlements. Until either the next counterpropaganda measure from Abbas, or the outbreak of a new intifada next fall, when hopes for a final agreement and Palestinian independence are ultimately dashed.
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