The series of tremors that Tiberias has experienced recently has apparently also shaken up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, which seems to be on its last legs. When cabinet ministers attack their own government’s decisions because they are reluctant to directly attack Netanyahu, they automatically turn Justice Minister Tzipi Livni into someone willing to sell Israel’s national interests for a song (Livni heads the Israeli negotiating team in the peace talks with the Palestinians). As if she is acting on her own initiative and not according to the prime minister’s guidelines.
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With a coalition like this, and with allies like these, not only is Netanyahu unable to make any progress in the peace process, he cannot even give the appearance of trying to make any progress. For instance, in order to placate “our brethren [Economy Minister Naftali] Bennett and friends,” Netanyahu clandestinely promised them that, after the second stage in the Palestinian-prisoner release earlier this week, there would be extensive construction activity in Jerusalem, and that construction work in the West Bank would continue.
Evidence of that promise can be seen in the fact that, while the 26 Palestinian prisoners were in the process of being released, a large-scale construction program in Jerusalem was announced. It is very characteristic of Netanyahu that, in his “peace-making functions,” he always makes every possible mistake until he finally does the right thing. Well, not quite always.
Take, for example, his ending of the boycott of the United Nations Human Rights Council this week. He ended it only after receiving a letter from German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who informed the PM that failure to appear at the council’s periodical hearing on human rights on Tuesday would cause severe diplomatic damage to Israel, and that its allies around the world would be hard-pressed to help it.
Netanyahu’s behavior in this instance recalls the joke about a little boy who refuses to get down from the rocking horse in a shoe store and pays no attention to what either his father or the store’s owner are telling him. Then a stranger walks up and whispers something in the little boy’s ear, whereupon the child instantly dismounts. “What did you whisper to my son?” the father asks the stranger. “I told him that if he does not get off the horse immediately, I would slap him in the face twice.”
Well, children are children, but, as the leader of his country, Netanyahu should not put himself in a position where heavy pressure has to be applied in order to make him act. Instead, he should do things according to the criterion of what is important and vital for the country at whose helm he stands. Netanyahu wants to continue with the status quo regarding the Palestinians. However, since the Americans do not believe him, he has decided that the release of Palestinian prisoners in four stages is the best option; that it is better to infuriate the families of the victims of these prisoners than to lay the card of a freeze on West Bank construction activity on the table. He does not want to play that card because there is strong opposition to such a move from within his cabinet – from members of the coalition parties, even from members of his own Likud party.
Netanyahu knows what he is aiming for – at least, that is what he is saying. I am referring here to the principles of his perception of a two-state solution, of which he spoke favorably in his famous speech at Bar-Ilan University four years ago. At the time, there were those who took his words at face value, while others who claimed he was only bluffing. In any event, he has managed to almost completely discard the content of that dramatic promise by demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This almost sounds like a joke: Israel demanding to be recognized as a Jewish state by a nation that still has no state of its own. Netanyahu was highly reluctant to release the 104 Palestinian prisoners, but he preferred that over freezing settlement activity.
Whether or not the public believes Netanyahu is pulling the wool over the eyes of Israelis and the world in his declared aspiration for the advancement of the peace process with the Palestinians, there are many who think that, if anyone can achieve peace, it is "Bibi." No one ever dreamed that the government headed by Ariel Sharon - which started off as an extremely right-wing government, a settlement-oriented government - could do a dramatic about-face overnight. That it could tell the public to "forget about its dream of a Greater Israel,” to use Sharon’s phrase. Sharon, the “most famous promoter of Jewish settlement in the region,” did more than just talk about doing things; he actually evacuated Gaza in 2005.
At least Netanyahu talks about peace. Because he knows that Israel cannot allow itself to be a country without internationally recognized borders. Recently, impressive figures have appeared in the foreign press about the number of nuclear missiles in Israel’s arsenal. However, no peace settlement can be signed without recognized borders. A peace settlement with the Palestinians is of vital importance to Israel, no matter what borders are decided upon.
With the present coalition, not only is Netanyahu unable to make any progress toward peace, he cannot even give the appearance of trying to make any progress in that direction. This is not the time to talk about construction activity in the West Bank. What must be done is to reshuffle the cabinet and avoid at all costs the possibility of playing into the hands of the government’s radical partners.
If Netanyahu wants to, he can be remembered as someone who brought peace to the region. He can achieve that goal by giving the cabinet a face-lift and by recruiting partners who aspire to peace. He must not follow the stubborn course of the little boy who refused to get off the rocking horse. If a slap to the cheek is delivered, it will most certainly be painful.