Netanyahu Is Dancing to Abbas’ Tune, Always One Step Behind

The Israeli response to the formation of the Palestinian unity government was surprisingly muted, but the situation reflects badly on the prime minister.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Benjamin Netanyahu, June 1, 2014.
Benjamin Netanyahu, June 1, 2014.Credit: Reuters
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The Israeli response to the new Palestinian unity government is a far cry from the harsh statements made in recent weeks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some of his ministers. While Netanyahu didn’t hesitate to make populist, aggressive statements, on a practical level he has chosen to respond with caution and restraint.

Considering the composition of the current Israeli government, one could even define yesterday’s decision as moderate. Israel didn’t say it wouldn’t recognize the new Palestinian government; it didn’t decide to boycott its members; and it didn’t completely freeze contact with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Given this, it will be interesting to see whether President Shimon Peres still goes to the Vatican next week to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Abbas and Pope Francis to pray for peace.

If the pope’s initiative raised some eyebrows a week ago, today it looks nothing less than delusional. But so far, Netanyahu hasn’t asked Peres to cancel the visit, the President’s Residence said. It added that the two men are coordinating closely.

Moreover, the security cabinet refrained from approving any practical measures that would take effect from this morning. Instead of a dramatic decision to halt the transfer of tax revenues that Israel collects on the PA’s behalf, it made do with deducting 20 million shekels ($5.8 million) a month to cover the PA’s debt to the Israel Electric Corporation.

And despite the heavy pressure on Netanyahu from settler leaders, no wave of new construction in the settlements was announced. The ministers even authorized Netanyahu to decide on his own on any additional sanctions, thereby enabling him to demonstrate flexibility and restraint.

The rest of the resolution contained nothing but statements of principle. First, Israel won’t conduct diplomatic negotiations with the new PA government – something that wasn’t on the agenda for the foreseeable future, anyway. And second, it won’t allow Hamas to run in elections for the Palestinian parliament – elections that, in any case, are considered unlikely to actually take place, even though the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement calls for them to be held within the next six months.

What mainly emerges from the resolution is Netanyahu’s fear of escalation. If there’s one thing he doesn’t want to do, it’s cause the Palestinian Authority to collapse. The second thing he wants to avoid is international criticism or pressure on Israel.

The security cabinet’s decision will enable him to achieve the first goal, at least for now. And he never really expected to be able to achieve the second goal. Indeed, less than five hours later, Washington announced that it plans to work with the new Palestinian government. The European Union’s position will be the same.

But above all, Netanyahu’s conduct toward the Hamas-Fatah unity government reveals that he has no plan or strategy of his own on the Palestinian issue. As has been his pattern throughout the last five years, he is merely reacting to Palestinian moves, and thereby putting Israel’s fate into Abbas’ hands. Instead of seizing the initiative and grabbing the bull by the horns, he gets dragged along time after time, like a street-sweeper’s broom.

And for all of Netanyahu’s caution, nothing good will come of the diplomatic freeze.

Today, under his leadership, Israel’s government has been taken hostage. It is at the mercy of the pogromists of the “price tag” movement, the terrorists of Hamas, and the Palestinians’ domestic political infighting. And all the public diplomacy attacks that he surely plans against Abbas won’t deliver him from one simple question: What ought to be done?