Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing the chance of a lifetime. Time and time again he has called for the resumption of talks with the Palestinians and now his call has come true. Now Netanyahu can show his mettle as a politician and a diplomat; he can shape the borders of the state and influence the appearance of the Middle East that rises from the ruins of the Arab Spring. If he succeeds, he will stand out among Israel’s prime ministers not only because he has held on to his office longer than any other, but because of his political legacy.
Since he returned to power, Netanyahu has hated initiating moves and has preferred to appear to have decisions forced on him by external elements − American pressure (the Bar-Ilan speech, the settlement freeze, the apology to Turkey) or public protest (the Shalit swap, the Trajtenberg Committee). Barak Ravid’s report last week on the new European directives against the settlements provided Netanyahu with the pressure he needed to decide on a renewal of diplomatic talks. Finally he found an outside threat to justify the political risk. Now Netanyahu can say that he had no choice, that if he had insisted on zero gestures to the Palestinians Israel would be on its way to much worse isolation and boycott.
This defense argument will not soften the expected opposition from the right to his diplomatic moves. The more the talks progress and are accompanied by measures on the ground, the deeper the rift will become between Netanyahu and his power base. He will have to depend on Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor), Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah) and in real distress, on Meretz and the Arab factions, to move ahead. His goal will be to isolate the settlers and present them as “price tag” thugs who are detested by most of the public.
There are a thousand reasons for Netanyahu, like all of his predecessors, to fail in negotiations with the Palestinians. Here is a partial list: the gaps between the two sides are huge; there is no trust between the leaders; Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is too weak; U.S. President Barack Obama is not interested; ideology and fear are stronger than Netanyahu. Paradoxically, precisely the common wisdom that nothing will come out of the negotiations increases the chance that they will be conducted seriously. The public is indifferent and so the negotiators can talk quietly, without pressure for immediate results.
There are also circumstances that will contribute to success. The Arab world is crumbling and weak; its moderate Sunni leaders long for a diplomatic achievement that will prolong the life of their regimes. Hamas, worried about the fall of its Egyptian patron Mohammed Morsi, is busy strengthening its rule and its military prowess and will have a hard time torpedoing the talks as it did in the past. Netanyahu understands that without a significant step vis a vis the Palestinians, “the world” will not support Israeli action against Iran. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is eager to succeed, stubborn and knows how to conduct himself with the two parties, as he showed in the renewal of the talks. Netanyahu is at the height of his political power, with no rivals. He has an alternative coalition and most of the public supports an agreement.
And so the decision is in his hands. Netanyahu can pay lip service to a resumption of talks and flee from them the moment he is able to blame Abbas for their failure. That is the easy way, which will perpetuate his image as a prime minister who sat and sat in his chair and did nothing. And he can overcome his inhibitions and take a risk, with the goal of implementing the Bar-Ilan plan and establishing an independent Palestine alongside Israel.
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