Mahmoud Abbas Could Be Netanyahu’s Unlikely Salvation

As the world prepares to pounce on his narrow, right-wing coalition, the prime minister needs an exit strategy.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

It was a cackle heard round the world. Spontaneous or premeditated, the seemingly collective outburst of laughter in response to Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration in the Knesset on Thursday that his new government would “pursue peace” was probably a harbinger of things to come. The prime minister will be hard pressed to persuade anyone, including himself, that his new coalition will be ready, willing or able make even minute progress towards a two-state solution.

“That prospect seems distant now,” President Obama said at his Camp David press conference, following his summit with Gulf leaders. Persisting with understatement, Obama added: “I know that a government has been formed that contains some folks who don't necessarily believe in that [2-State] premise,” he added.

The President’s tone was wistful: he didn’t sound like someone who harbors any expectations or has any intention of challenging the reality created by the Israeli electorate in the March 17 election. The U.S. may or not veto the French resolution on Palestine if and when it is presented to the UN Security Council, but Obama has bigger fish to fry than pursuing an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace process in which he stopped believing long before Netanyahu was resoundingly returned to a fourth term in office on March 17.

But even if Obama fulfills the eternal dream of right-wing Israeli leaders and adopts an attitude of benign neglect towards renewed diplomacy, the rest of the world won’t stand still. Netanyahu, after all, isn’t starting his fourth tenure at the helm with a clean slate: his international credit was running low even before he cobbled together one of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history.

Europe has been chomping at the bit since the end of Operation Protective Edge last summer, awaiting the first opportunity to express its displeasure and distance itself from Netanyahu and his new government. Hardly giving Netanyahu time to catch his breath, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Representative Frederica Mogherini announced on Friday that she would visit Jerusalem and Ramallah mid-week to get the ball rolling.

The global BDS movement, of course, is hoping to exploit what it feels is a golden opportunity to make unprecedented headway in both the US and Europe, especially on university campuses. Supporters of a one-state solution – now with ostensible allies inside the cabinet – will also be on the march. Long time critics of Israel, near and far, will seize on the new government and the negative media coverage that it is already generating in order to press their case and enlist new adherents.

Yes, Netanyahu will still be able to rely on his friends in the Republican Party, always in lockstep, as evidenced by Senator Marco Rubio’s statement this week that a 2-state solution is not in the cards. But GOP leaders will be preaching to the converted, excuse the expression, while more centrist and leftist supporters of Israel will inevitably recede to the background. This includes many liberal American Jews who may be no less skeptical than Netanyahu about a nuclear deal with Iran or the prospects for peace with the Palestinians, but who will be nonetheless repelled by the renewed ultra-Orthodox assault on religious pluralism and by the planned right wing onslaught against civil liberties, NGO’s and the Israeli Supreme Court.

There is very little Netanyahu can do to prevent things from going from bad to worse. He won’t enjoy 100 days of grace: he’ll be lucky if he gets more than a week or two. Sooner or later Netanyahu will have to agree to renewed settlement activity, just as he will have no choice but to advance at least some of the right-wing’s controversial initiatives. And the world will be waiting to pounce, not only as personal punishment but also as a lesson to Israeli voters that this time, they’ve gone too far.

Netanyahu’s dour countenance in the speech in which he presented his cabinet on Thursday said it all: he seemed far from happy to be embarking on the rough journey that awaits him. He could hardly contain his look of disappointment as Zionist Camp and Opposition Leader Yitzhak Herzog relentlessly pounded him from the podium in his uncharacteristically harsh response. Herzog, it now seems clear, is in no hurry to save Netanyahu from himself.

The Book of Esther notes, however, that “relief and deliverance for the Jews will come from another place,” albeit in a completely different context. True, if the Republicans take the White House in November 2016, Netanyahu will be able to start breathing freely, but it is far from clear that his precarious 61 member coalition will be able to survive for so long. He needs a bridging solution, at the very least, and there is only one person who can give him one: his name, shockingly, is Mahmoud Abbas.

This is not what the Palestinian leader has in mind right now. Like many others, he has given up on Netanyahu and is pressing ahead with an all-out, across the board, diplomatic offensive against Israel in international arenas, from soccer’s FIFA group, to the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Abbas may feel that the force is with him, and he may not be wrong: if ever there was a time to internationalize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that time is now.

Nonetheless the stark reality underpinning Abbas’ hold on power, if not his very existence, remains unchanged: he lives and dies by the goodwill of the Israeli government and its authorities. Israel, of course, has a vested interest in maintaining the Palestinian Authority and its collaboration with PA security forces, but if Abbas takes his international vendetta too far, hotter heads in the new Israeli cabinet could very well prevail: the walls of Jericho, as well as other cities under PA control, could quickly come tumbling down.

Interestingly, in his Nakba Day speech on Friday, Abbas held out prospects for resuming peace talks. Even more strikingly, the three conditions he reportedly set down did not seem like pie in the sky at all. Netanyahu could easily agree to commit to a year’s worth of uninterrupted talks; he could probably coerce his new cabinet to grudgingly agree to release Palestinian prisoners imprisoned before the 1993 Oslo Accords; and while he will find it difficult to accept a full settlement freeze, it’s not completely delusional to assume that he could reach an understanding with Abbas in some back-channel give-and-take that will allow both sides to claim victory. Netanyahu, let’s not forget, is definitely in a position to make Abbas some offers that he cannot refuse.

Any resumption of the peace process, even one deemed by experts to be doomed to failure, would have an immediate and dramatic influence on Netanyahu’s fortunes. Europe will have no choice to cease and desist, the Security Council will move on to other matters, even Obama might be pleasantly surprised, especially if the Iran deal is already behind him.

The diplomatic storm already gathering on Israel’s shores will abate, and more importantly, perhaps, Israeli public opinion will rally behind Netanyahu. True, he may run into stiff opposition from his right wing flanks, especially Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, but if his government teeters as a result, there is no question that Herzog and his Zionist Camp, and possibly Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party as well, will have no choice but to support Netanyahu and to join his coalition in very order - at a price far more agreeable to Netanyahu than the one he would have to offer now.

Of course, such bold and potentially risky moves aren’t Netanyahu’s forte, especially as it’s far from clear whether he himself still supports the 2-state solution. But it is Netanyahu’s guarded and overcautious political maneuvers that have placed him in the unenviable quagmire he finds himself now. It is not a high point on which one seeks to end a long political career.

In this situation, not taking a risk, as Mark Zuckerberg once said, could be the biggest risk of all. And once he starts taking risks and making bold, surprising moves, you never know, Netanyahu could get addicted.

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