Make Peace With Palestinians or Buy Time Before Israel's Isolation - What Are Netanyahu's True Intentions?

During a week when Israel released Palestinian prisoners and announced tenders for more construction in the territories, no one can fathom what Benjamin Netanyahu intends for the renewed talks. Meanwhile, Yair Lapid seems to be heading left.

On Wednesday, Tzipi Livni was imbued with great desire and good intentions. Her political status is invested in what will or will not happen between her and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat over the next nine months. Livni believes that she is the only Israeli capable of achieving a final-status agreement with the other side.

For years, Livni said that if she were only allowed to enter the room, she would emerge with an agreement. She undoubtedly had in mind a situation in which she was prime minister or foreign minister in a center-left government, and not one in which she is accountable to Benjamin Netanyahu and where every word she utters is supervised by Netanyahu’s lawyer, Isaac Molcho.

The 13 months in which she sat opposite Erekat and former Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia ‏(Abu Ala‏), during 2007-2008, helped create an image of her as the leader of the two-state concept in Israel. She did indeed give and take − and on occasion also preached, as the Palestinians have complained − but the real negotiations were conducted via the more significant channel involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ‏(Abu Mazen‏). In contrast to the latter, who shared the content of his talks with the Israeli premier with his own emissaries, Olmert did not bring Livni into the loop. That absurd situation reached its peak in September 2008, when Olmert presented Abbas with a far-reaching proposal for a final agreement, completely ignoring Livni’s parallel track. Even that proposal, on which Livni would never have considered signing off, did not get a response.

At the moment, as long as no channel, secret or public, exists between Netanyahu and Abbas, Livni is the only player on the Israeli side. But she is a puppet on a string, with the prime minister as puppeteer. In the end, everything always comes back to the starting point: What are Netanyahu’s intentions? Has he crossed the Rubicon, or is he only trying to postpone the doomsday scenario of sanctions by the international community, which is fed up with the occupation?

Netanyahu is telling people in the center-left that he is determined to go as far as possible in order to avert “the danger of a binational state” and that the whole “conflict management” theory is bankrupt. People on the right who talk to him are not convinced that he has done an about-face. Netanyahu was always adept at giving his interlocutors a good feeling.

Opposition leader MK Shelly Yacimovich ‏(Labor‏), who met with Netanyahu last week, was asked this week if she had a feeling that she and her colleagues were about to be summoned to lend a hand to peacemaking. She said it is very unlikely that Livni will be the one to achieve the longed-for breakthrough. At the same time, Yacimovich spelled out, for the first time, her conditions for taking Labor into the government: 1. publication by the Americans of the “blueprint” for a final-status agreement, including the security arrangements and the guarantees they intend to give Israel; 2. a government decision on beginning the evacuation of isolated settlements; and 3. the resignation of Habayit Hayehudi from the coalition.

‘A serious mistake’

“Anything less than that will not be enough,” Yacimovich said. “If Netanyahu thinks he can have us for nothing, like [Ehud] Barak in 2009 − he is making a serious mistake. Barak’s partnership in the previous government serves as a warning, from my point of view. Nothing happened in those years, not even when Labor, or Atzmaut [Barak’s party after he bolted from Labor] was in the government. Just the opposite. If we enter now, we will not be an accelerating element in the process, but a foot-dragging one. The moment we are there, Netanyahu will think he can buy more time.”

Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel, No. 2 in Habayit Hayehudi, staged a display of political clout this week in Jerusalem’s Jabel Mukaber neighborhood. Together with the mayor, Nir Barkat, who covets the national-religious votes in the municipal elections set for October, Ariel laid the cornerstone for a new Jewish neighborhood of 63 residential units. He also declared, in his usual sectarian style, that construction in Judea and Samaria will be stepped up, God willing.

In the week in which Netanyahu was forced to release murderers of Jews from prison in order to kick-start the talks with the Palestinians, only because of his refusal to choose the alternative option of a construction freeze in the West Bank − a decision for which he is paying a steep price among the Israeli public ‏(because of the prisoner release‏) and also abroad ‏(for ongoing construction and for allowing tenders to be issued
to build 1,200 more residential units in post-1967 Jerusalem and in the settlement blocs‏) − this is the thanks he gets from Habayit Hayehudi: another finger jabbed into the eye of the international community.

It’s unlikely that this minor circus served even the interests of Ariel and his party in the long term. The settlers applauded − big deal. By the way, the Yesha Council of settlements this week also condemned Netanyahu for the “quiet freeze” and scolded him because the tenders were “too little and too late.” That group is giving ingratitude a bad name.

Less expected was the finance minister’s statement deploring the issuance of the housing tenders. Yair Lapid, who declared in the past ‏(at the urging of his adviser Uri Shani, who warned him against being labeled a leftist‏) that he would not support any agreement with Palestinians that included the division of Jerusalem ‏(“because Jerusalem is an idea and you don’t divide an idea”‏), termed the tenders announcement a “double mistake,” “an unnecessary provocation of the Americans and sticking spokes in the wheels of the peace talks.”

Lapid has so far not shown any special interest in the peace process, other than a general statement of support for the two-state idea. He has displayed empathy toward the settlements.

But in the past month or two, the treasury minister has been plunging in the polls. Voters are abandoning him, in a thin but steady trickle, and contrary to past trends, new voters are not joining in.

Lapid’s leftward lurch prompted ministers in Likud to wonder, among themselves, whether the finance minister, aware of his continuing weakness, has reached the conclusion that he has to set himself apart from the dominant figure sitting in the Prime Minister’s Bureau. The term “Netanyahu’s presenter,” attached to him by Yacimovich, has stuck. In other places, including the bastions of disappointed Yesh Atid voters, he is spoken of as the contractor of Bibi’s economic policy.

Maybe Lapid is starting to grasp that salvation will not come from the Finance Ministry. Maybe, a senior Likud figure reflected aloud this week, just maybe Lapid is preparing his exit − precisely over the issue of the peace process. If in a week in which even Livni was mute about the construction tenders for Jerusalem and the West Bank, Lapid chooses to flank Netanyahu from the left, possibly we are witnessing the start of a process of differentiation between Lapid and his party, and Netanyahu.

The finance minister needed no little chutzpah to complain about the mistakes and the provocation that the Housing Ministry tenders entailed: Just five months ago, it was thanks to Lapid alone that, as Naftali Bennett himself admits, his Habayit Hayehudi was not left languishing in the opposition, alongside Haneen Zoabi and Ibrahim Sarsur. What was he thinking in that period of arrogance when the coalition was being formed: that Bennett and Ariel would really concentrate on construction inside the Green Line?

To paraphrase the well-known proverb: If you go to sleep with schnauzers, don’t be surprised if you wake up with fleas.

The future calls

If Yair Lapid were a columnist − in “7 Days,” the weekend magazine of the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth, for example − what would he write about a senior politician, the leader of a large party who heads a key ministry, who time after time insults his voters, calls them names, disdains their protests and generally treats them with contempt? Wow, what a column he would write, especially after that politician had likened his disappointed voters to schnauzers who got wet in the rain.

Two months ago, at the height of the budget discussions, he informed the disgruntled voters that the megaphone that’s capable of penetrating the walls of the cabinet conference room had not yet been born. Betwixt and between, he has made jokes about the recurrent fiasco he shares with Netanyahu over the appointment of the next governor of the Bank of Israel, has savaged on his Facebook page an innocent Net-surfer, a lawyer and civics teacher who dared to speak out about the hazing dished out to Yesh Atid MK Adi Kol, and more.

In his five months in the government, Lapid has adopted a habit of repeatedly scoring own goals − and on his home field: the Facebook statuses and the articulate newsletters he sends out once a week to the e-mail addresses of his myriads of supporters. In 95 percent of the cases, the newsletters are of an informative character. The minister details his activities, takes pride in his achievements ‏(some of them real, others dubious, the rest fabricated‏), and offers his readers something of a glimpse into what is happening between the opaque walls of the government. But he will always insist on adding the joke or the image without which, let’s admit it, a newspaper column is unfit to be printed.

The media, as is their wont, hone in on the problematic sentence. The information, the message and the ideas that Lapid wants to transmit are shunted aside. It’s no wonder that in all three of the most recent polls published in the media, Yesh Atid has lost support equivalent to between four and six Knesset seats, and the public’s satisfaction with Lapid’s ministerial performance, like the public’s opinion of his suitability to be prime minister, is close to zero.

Of course, you won’t hear a word of criticism from the 18 MKs whom Lapid carried into the 19th Knesset on his coattails. They are trained and obedient schnauzers. But what one hears being whispered among the members of his Knesset faction is, “Look at how Yair is burning himself out.” The MKs don’t understand why there is no one at Lapid’s side who will tell him that a politician of his status who aspires to be prime minister in another few years has to be more mindful of his keyboard utterances.

He does have an experienced media adviser, who certainly would have spotted those verbal land mines earlier, but it’s unlikely that she was asked for her opinion. He also has Hillel Kobrinsky, a close friend who has no official position or title. Kobrinsky manages the party with a high hand and has already made enemies of most of the top ranks of the treasury. Lapid can say “yes” on some issue, but if Kobrinsky says “no,” it’s the “no” that will decide the issue. But mostly, Lapid has himself: The person who scored a huge electoral achievement seems to believe that he is incapable of making a mistake.

One hundred-and-fifty days into the government’s term of office, the word, albeit anonymous, in Yesh Atid is: Something’s not working. The abandonment is real and palpable. The MKs are telling each other − quietly, so Yair won’t hear − that wherever they go, they are the targets of critical reactions, all of which are aimed at the beloved leader.

Here’s a story you won’t read in Lapid’s next newsletter. After he entered politics, a group of about 20 young men and women who believed in him ardently gathered around him. Most were students, some with an undergraduate degree, some with a master’s. In the first seven or eight months of Lapid’s life as a new politician, they worked as volunteers. They were known in Yesh Atid as the “heart of the party.”

During the election campaign, they started to get salaries, usually the minimum wage for round-the-clock toil. After the election, when the senior members of Yesh Atid entered the government, the young volunteers expected to get jobs in the government, the Knesset or the party. They were required to “prove themselves” again, while confidants of the senior members of the party were given steady jobs ‏(one of those included the sister of a very senior person who is close to Lapid‏). About one-third of the group of young people left the party in the past month or two. Others are considering their path. They discovered that they have no future in a party whose name means “there is a future.”