In the final hours of the 2001 diplomatic summit between Israel and the Palestinians at Taba in Egypt, and a week before elections in Israel, the head of the Palestinian preventive security force in Gaza at the time, Mohammed Dahlan, stepped out of the conference room and uttered words to waiting journalists that have entered the pantheon of the peace process.
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“Harta barta,” he said in Arabic. “Utter nonsense.”
Dahlan’s 2001 comment could aptly describe the conduct of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toward to peace process with the Palestinians over the past six years in general, and in the recent period in particular. This has once again been highlighted in a report, published a few days ago in the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth daily, regarding “concessions” that Netanyahu made in the course of negotiations with the Palestinians (which confirms a Haaretz investigative report in July 2014).
Netanyahu had apparently agreed to conduct negotiations on the basis of Israel’s pre-Six-Day War 1967 borders, with territory swaps, on at least three occasions in recent years. One instance was related to efforts to establish negotiating conditions for the so-called Quartet (the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia) in 2011.
Another occasion was in secret, unofficial talks between Netanyahu’s envoy, Isaac Molho, and Hussein Aga, an academic and reputed close associate of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in 2013. A third was in talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over an American framework document at the beginning of last year.
Netanyahu has always tried to have it both ways. In some instances, he imposes conditions of his own that negate his own concessions; in other cases, he acts through purportedly unofficial channels that enable him to evade them after the fact. On still other occasions, he remembers to cite reservations that conflict with what he had already agreed to.
With this sort of approach, the premier comes out as the loser in all respects. In the last six years, he has not only made concessions, but also denied them, paid the political price, and given up receiving credit from the international community for them. His approach not only did not lead to a peace agreement, but also caused the leaders of the world's main powers to distrust anything he says.
And if all of that weren’t enough, he ultimately accuses his political rivals of being left-wingers who will lead precipitate the arrival of the militant Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in Jerusalem, and of Palestinian refugees in Tel Aviv.
The most recent reports of “concessions” on the prime minister’s part now – a week before the end of the Knesset election campaign, with his Likud party bleeding votes, and Netanyahu already starting to imagine passing the Prime Minister’s Office over to Zionist Union co-leader Isaac Herzog – has caused a shock in the Likud campaign. In addition to the usual allegation that the Yedioth report was a plot by the newspaper’s publisher, Noni Mozes, it has also fomented a sharp break to the right that even Formula 1 competitions have never seen.
The attempt to head off a loss of votes to the Habayit Hayehudi party has caused Likud and Netanyahu to get tripped up in a statement that is seen as the denial of a commitment that Netanyahu gave to the president of the United States. It was made on camera, in the Oval Office of the White House, in acceptance of the principle that a Palestinian state is to be established alongside Israel.
But after a declaration by Likud submitted to a weekly right-wing Shabbat pamphlet distributed in synagogues last weekend claimed that Netanyahu’s 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan in support for a Palestinian state is “no longer relevant in light of the current reality in the Middle East” – Likud spokesmen are being asked whether the prime minister is indeed still committed to a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.
In an interview with Channel 2 a few months ago, Netanyahu said that with their unilateral diplomatic moves, the Palestinians emptied the commitments mentioned in his speech of any substance. However, now Likud has taken this process one step further, quoting Netanyahu as saying that in light of Middle East realities, the policy in question is “no longer relevant” at this time. After these statements began gaining circulation abroad, the flip-flopping began, with the Prime Minister’s Office now denying that Netanyahu sees the Bar-Ilan speech as null and void.
Just as there is no need to get all excited about positions that Netanyahu has taken in the course of negotiations, there isn’t any reason to overreact to the recent zigzagging. There is nothing earth-shattering in Netanyahu’s denials regarding the Bar-Ilan speech a week before the election, just as there will be no need to be surprised when he backtracks after March 17, and recommits to the principles expressed in the speech if he is reelected.
Netanyahu being Netanyahu, every statement has its own time and place. One thing may be said to fend off President Barack Obama, while something else may be said to fend off Yedioth’s Noni Mozes. Now, as then, everything is cynical spin aimed at political survival.
Recently most of the senior figures in Likud have taken to the airwaves to deny that Netanyahu had ever made the concessions – particularly the one about agreeing to conduct negotiations based on the 1967 borders. They all dutifully lined up — Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz on Channel 2; Ofir Akunis, deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, on Army Radio; and even Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and former ministers at a news conference they convened. One after another, they spouted the false response dictated by Netanyahu that the positions were those of the Americans and were not accepted by the prime minister. Not a single word of what the Likud figures said was true.
The late Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir used to say that it was permissible to lie for the sake of the Land of Israel. If that’s what Benny Begin thought he was doing when he made his own statement, he’s confused. He stood there and lied for the sake of Netanyahu’s political survival. Is that why Begin returned to politics? How pathetic.