Netanyahu Close to Accepting Kerry Plan, and Losing His Coalition

PM is still trying to play with words and engineer the document so that it won’t break up his government, but the chances of that are slim.

Last Friday, in a Davos hotel, the Jewish participants at the World Economic Forum gathered for a Shabbat dinner. The highlight wasn’t the food, it was the speech by President Shimon Peres.

After the greetings and the usual words about the peace process, Peres looked at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the next table and told the following parable.

Once upon a time a man tried to swim across the Kinneret. He swam and swam and reached the middle of the lake. Suddenly he stopped, looked back and got scared. A swimmer who passed alongside him saw that he couldn’t decide how to continue.

If you go back you might drown, the second swimmer said. You’ve gotten this far, so you’re better off staying the course till the end. Netanyahu and many others in the hall didn’t need Peres to explain the moral. The message was clear.

Netanyahu knows he’s in the middle of the Kinneret. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni are trying to convince him to swim to the other side of the lake. But Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin are urging him to swim back to Tiberias, and they’re threatening to drown him if he does otherwise.

In the meantime, Netanyahu prefers to float – to let the current pull him to the right one day and the left the next. But soon he’ll be forced to decide where he’s headed.

Two things show that Netanyahu’s time for indecision is running out. One is Kerry’s plan to present a framework agreement within a few weeks, which would include principles for solving the most sensitive core issues. The other is Sunday’s intifada against Netanyahu from the right wing in Likud and the cabinet regarding his trial balloon on leaving settlements under Palestinian sovereignty.

Despite the impression Netanyahu is trying to make, even his reservations on the American document won’t ruin the framework. Netanyahu is about to say yes to the American outline, which requires dramatic Israeli concessions. He’s still trying to play with words and engineer the document so that it won’t break up his government, but the chances of that are slim.

The coordinated attack by Bennett and the new obstructors – Elkin, Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon – indicates that the government’s days are numbered. The day after the American document is unveiled, it’s very likely we’ll have a different governing coalition here. We can assume that Labor Party chief Isaac Herzog rubbed his hands in glee Sunday when he read about Habayit Hayehudi’s attacks on Netanyahu.

In an attempt to defend himself against Bennett’s attacks, Netanyahu said he was only trying “to expose the true face of the Palestinians” – to show that they’re the ones who refuse to make peace and reject any proposal. The problem is that by doing so, Netanyahu revealed his own true face as someone who’s not interested in a peace agreement as much as a PR victory that will blame the other side for any failure.

This should sound warning bells for Livni, who in recent days has defended Netanyahu and his views. Livni, who entered the government promising to promote a peace agreement, has to decide whether she’s cooperating with Netanyahu’s PR maneuvers or drawing red lines and demanding progress.

But if Kerry, Livni and Herzog want to help Netanyahu cross the Kinneret, they have to invest all their efforts on the Palestinian side. They have to make clear to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that rejecting the American framework document would only prove Netanyahu right. It would boost those claiming that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Instead of falling into Netanyahu’s trap, the Palestinians should say yes to the Kerry outline. For the first time they should test the prime minister’s seriousness and honesty.

Matty Stern / U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv