Rifles and Reshuffled Decks

The terror attacks this week in the West Bank, while talks were getting under way in Washington, complicated the task of the leaders meeting there, and increased the risk of all-out civil violence between Jews and Palestinians.

The settlements in the West Bank returned in a big way this week to the top of the public, security and diplomatic agendas. First was the announced boycott by left-wing Israeli actors and theater professionals against the new cultural center in Ariel, which brought the Green Line back into the political debate; then the shooting attacks at settlers, which brought terror back into Israeli consciousness; and finally the opening of the summit in Washington. That gathering, which convened in the shadow of the imminent expiration date of the construction freeze during the intermediate days of the Sukkot holiday, launched direct Israeli-Palestinian talks that are supposed to determine the fate of Jewish settlement in the territories.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Washington with the expectation of downplaying public discussion of the settlements and instead emphasizing messages of peace, conciliation and compromise. He hoped that debate over the construction freeze, which the Palestinians are presenting as a precondition for talks, would take place in camera rather than in public forums. His objective was to maintain internal solidarity at home, and to refrain from an open dispute with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which would embarrass their host, U.S. President Barack Obama.

Funeral for terror victims 03/09/10 Alex Levac
Alex Levac

The actors’ boycott played into Netanyahu’s hands: He condemned it prominently at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, and threatened to revoke public funding from theaters refusing to perform in Ariel. The premier ostensibly sought to quarrel with the left in order to position himself in the center, so as not to appear to be only the enemy of the settlers who had decided to freeze construction and was about to meet with “Hussein” Obama in order to toady to him and give up Greater Israel. Netanyahu wanted to demonstrate that he is not an indefatigable conceder, but rather a tough negotiator who would insist on maintaining the so-called settlement blocs as an inseparable part of Israel.

Netanyahu tried to convince reporters on the plane on Tuesday that he was heading to Washington to do business with Abbas − not to engage in a debate with him − and that it was a good idea to put aside the issues of settlements and outposts for now, and to discuss their fate as part of the final-status solution rather than as a precondition to negotiations. And then, while he was still in flight, came the attack in Kiryat Arba, in which four Israelis were murdered, and the agenda changed immediately. Once again it turned out that a focused and well-timed terror operation can disrupt leaders’ well-laid plans and destroy well-orchestrated diplomatic initiatives with a few rifle volleys.

End of the calm

The attack Tuesday ended the period of calm that Israel has enjoyed since the end of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, 20 months ago. It demonstrated that Palestinian terror has not been eliminated, it has only taken a time-out, and that Hamas can penetrate the defensive shield of the Israel Defense Forces, the Shin Bet security services and the security services of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Obama, who had previously benefited from diplomacy without violence, now encountered the same difficulty that overshadowed Mideast peace processes during the days of his predecessors. His embarrassment was evident in the improvised condemnation of the attack, which seemed to have been timed for news broadcasts aired on Israeli television. The president’s challenge is more complex than that of his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both of whom were popular with the Israelis. The Israeli public sees Obama as a weak president who plays up to the Arabs. Now he will have to convince them that America under his leadership can provide security to Israel, and not abandon it to terrorists from Hamas.

Terror struck again on Wednesday evening, at the Rimonim junction. That and the earlier attack brought to mind what happened when former prime minister Ariel Sharon took trips abroad, during the second intifada: Several times they were cut short due to a large number of attacks at home.

In the speech Netanyahu made at the White House before the Iftar meal ‏(eaten after sunset, to break the daytime fast during the Muslim month of Ramadan‏) hosted by the president in honor of his guests from the Middle East, Netanyahu declared: “I will not allow the terrorists to block our way to peace.”

How ironic it is when Netanyahu sounds like the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who talked about his determination to continue with the peace process as though there were no terror, and to fight terror as though there were no peace process. We can imagine how Netanyahu, as head of the opposition, would have lacerated any other prime minister who would have declared from the White House the intention to continue diplomatic talks despite the terror attacks.

Netanyahu tried to take advantage of the attacks to convince his interlocutors in Washington that the construction freeze should be set aside for now, and that there is justification for the tough security arrangements that he wants to impose on any future Palestinian state. But his most urgent and difficult problem is on the ground rather than in the halls of diplomacy: The settlers’ leadership used the attacks as a justification for “resuming construction,” participating in symbolic activities that Netanyahu was quick to condemn, and there were also settlers who reacted with “price tag” activities, such as setting a Palestinian field on fire, in “retaliation” to the attacks on the Israelis.

The attacks in the West Bank herald a new Palestinian strategy: a focused struggle against the settlers, and not against the Israeli home front, as in previous rounds of violence. If those responsible continue this way, they will present Israel with a very grave problem: “The world” will refuse to support Israeli responses directed against Hamas in Gaza ‏(such as a renewal of the assassinations from the air, or an intensification of the economic siege‏), on the grounds that such actions are aimed at perpetuating the settlements. Netanyahu will receive support for his war against terror only if he softens his stance in the negotiations.

Gradually an internal debate will also develop in Israel regarding the justification for the existence of the settlements, as in the days preceding the pullout from Gaza. That is exactly the situation that Sharon used to call “the corrals,” the route of steers on their way to be slaughtered.

Ideas to sell

The fate of the settlements lies at the heart of the diplomatic process being promoted by Netanyahu. All the other issues, with all their symbolic importance, are secondary: The negotiations are aimed at determining the border between Israel and Palestine, and the border is affected first of all by the location of settlements in the West Bank. Netanyahu is torn between the obligatory demands of any possible agreement, and the fear that the evacuation of the 100,000 settlers on the eastern side of the separation barrier is more than the country can tolerate.

Netanyahu apparently suggested to Obama that perhaps the settlers could remain in the Palestinian state. Obama’s reply is unknown, but one can assume that he was not very enthusiastic about the idea and will not try to sell it to the Palestinians.

Before setting out for Washington, Netanyahu appeared before members of the Likud and told them he hoped that Abbas will be “a courageous partner, as Sadat was for Begin.”

The late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat really was a great statesman; in exchange for his courageous acts, he received all of Sinai from prime minister Menachem Begin. Is that what Netanyahu was referring to? Or was he referring to an implicit understanding with the Americans and the Egyptians, which was part of the peace with Egypt, and enabled Begin to build dozens of settlements in the West Bank and to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor, at a time when the Egyptians were waiting patiently to receive their land back?

With “adjustments” to the present situation, maybe the idea is for there to be a withdrawal from the hilly areas of the West Bank in exchange for a green light from the U.S. to proceed with massive construction in the settlement blocs and to attack Iran, while the world is eagerly awaiting the establishment of Palestine.

Netanyahu sums up the deal that he is offering the Palestinians with the formula “sovereignty in exchange for security.” The idea is not new, and preceded even Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. It was at the basis of the peace proposal that the Egptian president conveyed to prime minister Golda Meir via U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger on the eve of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which was met with an Israeli refusal. ‏(According to Yitzhak Rabin’s book “The Rabin Memoirs,” the formula was presented at the time in reverse order, “security in exchange for sovereignty”‏).

Begin fought until the last moment to leave the settlements on the northern border of Sinai in place, and gave in only at the Camp David summit. Is Netanyahu proposing to leave the settlers in place as his opening gambit in the negotiations, and does he hope to trade evacuation of the settlements for the tough security arrangements he is demanding of the Palestinians?

The greater fear, which must be causing Netanyahu anxiety, is of a civil war developing in the West Bank between the settlers and the Palestinians, with the IDF and the PA stuck between them, and finding it difficult to impose calm. The settlers will demand that the political process be stopped, the Americans will demand that it continue − and Netanyahu will zigzag between them as his authority gradually erodes.