Why Was an Israeli Who Opposes Two-states Put in Charge of Palestinian Peace Talks?

There’s more than meets the eye to Netanyahu’s decision to appoint Silvan Shalom as chief negotiator with the Palestinians.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Netanyahu and Shalom during a cabinet meeting, 2012.
Netanyahu and Shalom during a cabinet meeting, 2012.Credit: Flash 90
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government has not been well-received, to say the least, and not only because of its right-wing agenda. It’s a hodgepodge of rival parties, with a number of questionable cabinet appointments. There’s a minister for senior citizens who is also the minister for the young (and for minorities, and for gender equality). Netanyahu himself constitutes a quarter of his own government, having kept four portfolios for himself for now (in addition to the premiership), possibly as bait to lure Zionist Camp into the coalition.

But this week the cabinet got even stranger, when Vice Prime Minister and Interior Minister Silvan Shalom was made Israel’s new chief negotiator with the Palestinians.

There are a number of things wrong with this statement. First, what negotiations? There are no negotiations. There are, reportedly, some direct and indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians, mostly on about day-to-day issues such as tax remittances, but the peace talks have been on indefinite hiatus since the collapse, over a year ago, of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to restart them. And it’s not as if either side seemed to take the negotiations too seriously then.

Is it possible that Netanyahu wants to get them going again, that he was just waiting for an opportunity and found it in his narrowest, farthest-right coalition?

Not likely. The “peace process” is so dead right now, such a farce, that Shalom could just as well have been named minister in charge of unicorn relations for all the good that’s likely to come of the appointment.

Shalom is incredibly ill-suited to the post. The long-time cabinet minister and Likud fixture, one of Israel’s richest politicians, is a fierce opponent of the two-state solution and an ardent supporter of settlement construction who has called the West Bank Israel’s “bulletproof vest.”

Furthermore, the negotiations are only a side-gig. Although Shalom was foreign minister for three years a decade ago and would have welcomed another term, his day job now is interior minister. His appointment can be seen the ultimate proof of Henry Kissinger’s famous dictum that “Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic policy.” Appropriately, Israel does not have a foreign minister at the present, only a prime minister with the title and an interior minister who does some exterior work on the side.

In the previous Netanyahu government, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, an emphatic supporter of the two-state solution, was in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians, and not Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. In the end, her enthusiasm mattered little.

While she was trying to resuscitate the talks, the government that she herself described after it fell as “extremist, provocative and paranoid,” did everything in its power to foil them.

With pessimism among Israelis and Palestinians at an all-time high and an Israeli public consensus against Palestinian statehood, the two-state solution is dead irrespective of the chief fantasy negotiator. The Palestinians know it too: Their chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said this week he saw no possibility of renewing the talks. The Obama administration, likewise, shrugged off the news of Shalom’s appointment, another sign that it has given up.

So if no negotiations are planned, why put someone in charge of them?

It’s kind of like a fire extinguisher: You hope you’ll never have to use it, but you still need to have one. Israel faces mounting pressure from the European Union, the United Nations and the International Criminal Court in The Hague. To mitigate the damage, it must demonstrate a willingness to renew the talks, and that means having a senior figure in charge, if only as an ornament.

So why not a more appropriate ornament? Because it doesn’t really matter. Shalom could be replaced in under six months, if Netanyahu can lure Zionist Union chairman Issac Herzog into the coalition and the Foreign Ministry. And if push comes to shove and Israel does agree to renewed talks (unlikely), Netanyahu’s envoy for the peace process, Isaac Molho, will lead them in any event.

But by making Shalom his de facto foreign minister, Netanyahu mollifies a bitter political rival and helps shore up his shaky, quarrelsome new government. Having made an enemy of popular Likud figure Gilad Erdan, a former cabinet minister who refused to join the government after being passed over for foreign minister, Netanyahu can’t afford Shalom’s remaining alienated.

And that’s really what this is all about: internal politics. Netanyahu made Shalom chief negotiator with the Palestinians not in order to send a hawkish message to the world, but rather in order to maintain control over his own house.

The outside world, in that regard, is nothing more to Israeli politics than an afterthought, a second job for a senior Israeli politician looking for an easy, high-profile gig.

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