If elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu will continue peace talks with the Palestinians, but their content will change. Based on past experience, he will recognize signed agreements, but will reject the proposals made by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia. In Netanyahu's view, governmental continuity applies only to signed and ratified agreements. Proposals that have not yet been accepted do not bind future governments.
Netanyahu will not offer the Palestinians an almost complete withdrawal from the West Bank, the absorption of several thousand Palestinian refugees in Israel and an international solution to Jerusalem, as Olmert has. He currently opposes a Palestinian state, and demands that Israel retain open areas of the Jordan Valley and the Judean Desert as security buffers. If the situation on the ground changes and a credible Palestinian partner emerges, there will be something to talk about, he says, but currently, it is premature.
Netanyahu's view has one surprising supporter: Abbas. In an interview with the newspaper Asharq Al Awsat a few days ago, Abbas described large gaps between the parties. Olmert's proposals, which are viewed as extremely concessionary in Israel's political discourse, are still below the minimum acceptable to the Palestinians.
Even more important, Abbas rejects the very idea of an agreement in principle, or of interim arrangements that would postpone resolving the issues of Jerusalem, the refugees and borders. In his view, either everything is settled or nothing is.
That is good news for Netanyahu. If Abbas rejects Olmert's proposals and does not try to anchor them in a formal agreement, Netanyahu can start the negotiations from any point he wishes. He will demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and waive any return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. They, of course, will refuse, so he will be able to honor his public pledge to Shas not to discuss Jerusalem.
The stances taken by Netanyahu and Abbas pose a dilemma for the new administration in Washington. President-elect Barack Obama and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton are committed to a two-state solution, but they will discover that any attempt to conclude a final-status agreement quickly is doomed to failure. They will have to decide whether to risk their prestige on such a move or to seek an alternative channel - Syria, for instance, or improving physical conditions in the territories.
Until Obama takes office, the outgoing administration will be making its parting Middle East moves. Today, the UN Security Council will approve an American resolution urging a continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian talks begun at last year's Annapolis summit. But Netanyahu has nothing to worry about: The resolution will not discuss the details of the negotiations, and is in any case nonbinding. Attempts to depict the resolution as a constraint on him are unconvincing. And the Foreign Ministry is actually pleased with its other clauses, which reiterate the Quartet's conditions for ending the boycott of Hamas - recognizing Israel, accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and renouncing terror - and ignore such uncomfortable issues for Israel as the settlements, the outposts and the Palestinian olive harvest.
As far back as 1995, Yossi Beilin opined that the leftist government had to achieve "maximum peace" before the next election, lest Likud take power and halt the peace process. This is the third time since then that Likud has been poised to return to power. But just like the previous two times, this time, too, it will apparently enjoy freedom of action in managing the diplomatic process.
Netanyahu will have only one problem: The international community will view him as responsible for the freeze, and will therefore try to pressure him.
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