When Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu led the opposition to the Oslo Accords, he had a stroke of media brilliance. Speechwriter Netanyahu called the dynamic of the negotiations not "give and take," but "give and give," ridiculing the leaders of the left and promising that he would insist upon reciprocity. The Palestinians would have to pay through concessions for every dunam they receive in the territories. If they give, they'll get, he said on assuming office as prime minister, and if they don't give, they won't get.
One can question the candor and seriousness of Netanyahu's stance, but it had an internal logic that everyone understood. Israel was holding territory as a diplomatic bargaining chip and would agree to withdraw from it if it got fair compensation in return. Withdrawals without compensation, Netanyahu warned, would only project weakness and tempt the Arabs to demand more of Israel.
True to his approach, Netanyahu demanded that Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat again rescind the Palestinian National Covenant and in return, he gave up land in the West Bank. He was evasive over support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip, until resigning from the cabinet on the eve of the withdrawal. In the 2006 campaign, he branded Ehud Olmert a leftist who would withdraw without getting anything in return. When he regained the prime minister's post, he discarded his predecessor's peace proposals and refused to discuss "core issues" with the Palestinians.
Now Netanyahu has encountered the same problem that caused his predecessor to shift to the left and abandon ideology and prior declarations, and give more territory to the Palestinians. Netanyahu's international isolation is growing and heavy pressure from abroad is beginning to influence things at home as well. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is warning of a "diplomatic tsunami" that will strike Israel in September with the expected UN vote on recognizing an independent Palestinian state.
The new Israeli peace initiative presented by leading figures in the business and academic communities undermines the central foundation of the Netanyahu-Barak government, which is that there is no Palestinian partner. The prime minister's popularity is damaged when he is occupied with explaining his lavish travels around the world. It is increasingly reminiscent of Ariel Sharon's forlorn autumn that led him to the disengagement policy.
Netanyahu is looking for a way out, and as reported yesterday in Haaretz, is pulling his predecessors' solutions - which he once so vociferously opposed - out of the drawer. The prime minister is considering throwing the governments of the West a bone in the form of the transfer of territory in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority without harming the settlements. In return, the Americans and Europeans will ease their pressure on Israel and refrain from recognizing a Palestinian state, and will convene an international conference where Netanyahu will be presented as a statesman and peacemaker rather than as a stubborn politician.
The party of the disengagement, Kadima, will be forced to support Netanyahu in his concessions. Its support will neutralize the growing threat of early elections against the backdrop of the expected indictment of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The left will praise Netanyahu, the investigation over his trips abroad will be shelved, and the right wing will criticize him but swallow the withdrawal out of concern over falling from power.
It sounds perfect, but there's a problem here. Netanyahu's new policy is not rational. If the territories are important for Israel, as he has argued up to now, why give them up for a deferral of a U.N. vote or for a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama? And if the territories are not important, why hold on to them? If Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is refusing to negotiate and the PA has engaged in incitement, as Netanyahu has argued, how can they be given more territory? And most importantly, let's assume Netanyahu gets through September and buys the deferral of a UN vote with a few thousand dunams of land. What will he do in October?
The world will not abandon its aspiration for an end to the occupation and independence for the Palestinians, and the pressure on Israel will continue.
There is no reason to carry out a miserly withdrawal without a quid pro quo just to buy more time.
There is a logic in a unilateral process that creates fundamental change on the ground and ultimately establishes a new border, such as was done in Gaza. The public will understand and the world will support a major withdrawal that includes the evacuation of dozens of settlements and heralds the end of the occupation while maintaining military control over the Jordan Valley. But such a decision requires courage and political ability on Sharon's level, and it is not enough to be a good speechwriter.
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