Analysis |

Netanyahu's Outburst, Kerry's Optimism: How Fear Yields Progress at Crunch Time

The Israelis and Palestinians are each waiting for the other to blink first as the U.S. ratchets up the pressure.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday began badly. Sources familiar with what occurred said that during the first hour the atmosphere was ugly and tense. Netanyahu arrived angry and made sure his guest knew it.

From the first minute of the meeting, Netanyahu was contrary. He broke into a tirade against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, protested that all the demands are being directed at him, complained about his coalition difficulties and the public criticism he was subjected to for releasing terrorists.

It took more than an hour for Netanyahu to calm down and agree to a constructive discussion of the framework agreement Kerry wants to present at the end of the month. Kerry was not offended by the scene Netanyahu made. He saw it as understandable venting, and a positive sign that the Israeli prime minister had digested that he is approaching a moment of truth – what the Americans call “crunch time.”

Netanyahu’s outburst testifies to the enormous pressure being exerted on him these days from all directions. On the one hand, the U.S. secretary of state is firmly pushing him to agree to negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines and some kind of division of Jerusalem. On the other, Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett is on his back, the settlers are organizing demonstrations against him, and members of his own party are making well-publicized tours of the Jordan Valley settlements.

Some of Netanyahu’s closest and most trusted advisers are warning him against rejecting the framework agreement Kerry plans to bring to the table. They draw a diplomatic nightmare scenario of international isolation alongside a political nightmare scenario in which Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid and their MKs will leave the coalition – at which point Netanyahu will suddenly discover that Shas is not his pocket, with its chairman, Aryeh Deri, taking revenge on the premier for abandoning his “natural partners.”

The assessment by Netanyahu’s associates at this stage is that Abbas will chicken out at the last minute and the Palestinians will reject the American proposal, though it isn’t clear whether this analysis is based on hard evidence or wishful thinking. Some of Netanyahu’s advisers are telling him that this is exactly why he must go along with Kerry at almost any price.

Kerry and his team do not share this assessment. They believe the Palestinian president has been holding up well so far against sharp internal criticism. The Americans believe there is no small chance that Abbas will agree to historic compromises, like recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, and will respond positively to the framework agreement.

Kerry’s optimism stems from the fact that he believes neither Netanyahu nor Abbas have a good alternative to the process he’s leading. On Friday, he made a surprise appearance at a lecture given by his spokesperson, Jen Psaki, to a group of American-Jewish students in Jerusalem, with Kerry reportedly telling them that “both leaders recognize the consequences of failure.”

A U.S. official explained that a rejection by Abbas of the Kerry initiative could cause irreparable damage to the entire Palestinian national enterprise, while rejection of it by Netanyahu would cause tremendous damage to Israel’s international standing and economy.

One senior U.S. official graphically described what will happen during the next four weeks in which the secretary of state draws up the framework agreement. “Kerry wants to climb with Netanyahu and Abbas to the top of the hill and show them the view on the other side,” the U.S. official said.

If Netanyahu and Abbas can reach a shared vision of what should be built on the other side of the hill, they could walk confidently down into the valley. If they fail, however, they may fall into a deep abyss.

Kerry and Abbas meet in Ramallah.Credit: AFP
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Israel for his tenth visit in a year, Jan. 2, 2014Credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

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