Tuesday night at about 10 P.M., several well-known figures gathered around a Jerusalem restaurant table. Present were Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians on the government’s behalf; Isaac Molho, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal envoy to the talks; Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer; U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro; and American envoy to the talks Martin Indyk.
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Their conversation revolved around the framework agreement that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his team are working on. The humus, salad and kebab were accompanied by in-depth discussions about the language and ideas each side would like to see in the American document, which will be submitted to Israel and the Palestinians in less than a month.
Over the past week, Netanyahu and his advisers have held many similar meetings. Some were with Indyk and Shapiro, but most were internal discussions. Almost every day, and sometimes twice a day, Netanyahu holds consults about the wording of the American document. This is the issue to which he now devotes most of his time – no less, and perhaps even more time than he devoted to Iran during the talks between the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic in Geneva.
For hours on end, Netanyahu sits with a small group of cabinet ministers and advisers. Usually present are Livni, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and sometimes Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, along with Molho, Dermer, National Security Advisor Yossi Cohen, and recently Netanyahu’s new-old adviser, Dore Gold. At every meeting, the assembled company goes over the American proposals with a fine-toothed comb, assaying everything from security arrangement through refugees to the wording of the clause on the 1967 lines.
Tuesday morning, Netanyahu briefed the ministerial peace-talk forum on the status of negotiations with the Americans in preparation for Kerry’s return to the region next Monday. The same night, over in Washington, Kerry briefed U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on his own progress and his efforts to obtain Arab League backing for his framework agreement.
In the coming weeks, Obama will become personally involved in Kerry’s effort. He will have to approve the framework agreement before Kerry can officially present it, and he won’t accept a weak, superficial document. Obama wants a meaty, substantive proposal.
One issue that arose at Netanyahu’s meeting with his ministers on Wednesday was whether the framework agreement should be brought to the cabinet for approval. If it were up to Netanyahu, the answer would be no. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett would also be happy not to have the agreement approved by any official forum: Then he could say his red lines hadn’t been crossed and his party could remain in the government.
Yet Netanyahu is under enormous pressure, both from his own Likud party and Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party. At Monday’s Likud faction meeting he sounded torn and indecisive – an Israeli Hamlet. To be or not to be? To tell Kerry yes or no?
Likud Knesset members who spoke with him in recent days had the impression that he’s searching for a way to tell Kerry "yes," while somehow keeping his coalition intact. But it’s not clear such an outcome is possible.
One of Netanyahu’s close associates said the fear that Kerry’s initiative will fail and Israel will be blamed for it is the main thing driving the prime minister these days. His dream is for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to torpedo it instead. But there’s no guarantee that will happen.
“We haven’t turned into leftists,” a Netanyahu adviser said. “We simply see the reality and understand what’s liable to happen. And it’s worrying.”