Ministers Livni, Ya'alon Get in Shouting Match Over Peace Talks

Argument took place at cabinet meeting last week; Kerry decided against coming to Israel after realizing neither Netanyahu nor Abbas are interested in talks.

Oren Nahshon

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon faced off vociferously during a meeting Thursday of the inner cabinet, over whether to renew negotiations with the Palestinians.

Three ministers present at the meeting told Haaretz that the heated remarks revolved around whether Israel should present a diplomatic initiative to the Palestinian Authority and the international community now that the war in Gaza is over.

Toward the end of the meeting, Ya’alon said Israel should learn its lesson from what happened in Gaza when it came to discussing potential withdrawal from more territory, and the boundaries of the Israel Defense Forces' freedom of action in the West Bank as part of diplomatic talks with the Palestinians.

Ya’alon said that had the IDF had not been working to thwart terror in the West Bank, the Hamas network that threatened to topple PA President Mahmoud Abbas would never have been uncovered. “They tell us that the diplomatic process will solve the problem with Gaza too…but we need to learn from what happened in Gaza. Where the IDF has no freedom of action the threat of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Global Jihad develops with rockets and mortars.”

Ya’alon said Israel should learn from the war in Gaza that it should not “run” to diplomatic channels, but should move slowly and cautiously. He also objected to negotiating with the Palestinians as long as their reconciliation government was in place.

According to the ministers present, Livni responded angrily and raised her voice, saying that Israel should embark on meaningful negotiations to deal with the legal and diplomatic assault expected following the war in Gaza.

Livni said the way to do this was on the one hand to renew negotiations with Abbas and his government on a permanent solution and on the other to move ahead, together with the United Sates, the European Union and other countries to change the reality in Gaza, including returning the PA to the Strip, prevent Hamas from rearming, and monitoring rehabilitation of the region.

“Making do with ending the fighting and not doing anything is a mistake. If that is what you think should be, please go to every single resident of the area near the Gaza border and tell them that what was shall be and that they should start preparing for the next round. This is a missed opportunity to attain demilitarization in Gaza and quiet for the inhabitants,” she said, referring to the Israeli communities near the Strip.

The charged atmosphere in Thursday’s cabinet meeting was the background of remarks Livni made on Channel 2’s “Meet the Press” on Saturday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ya’alon, as well as on various radio programs since then. Ya’alon also alluded to the confrontation in televised interviews Friday night in which he was skeptical about the possibility of renewed talks with the Palestinians.

One of the ministers at Thursday’s meeting told Haaretz that the confrontation represents a deep rift between segments of the coalition on the Palestinian issue. Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid are pushing for talks, but are in the minority. “As opposed to what is commonly thought, policy on the peace process is what could threaten the stability of the coalition, not the 2015 budget,” the minister said.

Although Netanyahu has been speaking recently about a “new diplomatic horizon” as a result of the war in Gaza, during Thursday’s cabinet meeting and other interviews he gave on television Friday, the prime minister seems to identify completely with Ya’alon’s position. He does not seem to be planning any significant diplomatic initiative vis–à–vis the Palestinians.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who sent feelers out to Netanyahu over the past two weeks as to the possibility of taking advantage of the end of the war to renew talks with the Palestinians, has also realized this. A senior Israeli official said that Kerry had even been considering coming to Israel this week to hold talks with Netanyahu and Abbas, but that he abandoned the idea after he realized that neither Netanyahu nor Abbas had any interest in talks at this time.

Gen. John Allen, who was over the past year his representative on security arrangements in the West Bank following the establishment of a Palestinian state, was sent by Kerry to Israel last week. Allen is considering stepping down from his position due to the diplomatic standstill, but Kerry asked to go to Israel once more before he made his final decision to see if there was any chance of renewing talks.

A senior Israeli official said that Allen met with Netanyahu and Ya’alon, hearing messages even more hawkish than in the past. They message they conveyed to the general is that their lesson from the war in Gaza is that the IDF has to have freedom of action in the West Bank and not only along the Jordan River.

The pair made clear to Allen that the main focus of dialogue with the PA had to be mainly the Gaza Strip and not a diplomatic arrangement in the West Bank that included the presenting of maps and the drawing of borders.

Netanyahu and Ya’alon told Allen they wanted him to continue his work on security arrangements taking into consideration the increasing threat from the Islamic State. The prime minister and the defense minister want to see the return of the PA Presidential Guard to the Rafah and the border crossing with Egypt, as well as PA involvement in the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip, and payment of salaries to Gaza officials. “Let’s see how Abu Mazen [Abbas] does first of all in Gaza and then we’ll talk about other things,” they told Allen.