Opinion |

The Problems With Netanyahu's and Lieberman's Logic

Israel's leaders may be taking advantage of the new administration in Washington to try to promote a saner agenda.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It is hard to believe Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman when he says he received a direct message from the Trump administration that annexing parts of the West Bank would lead to a crisis with the American administration.

We can also suspect, as the settlers do, that U.S. President Donald Trump did not make such a statement just as it is hard to believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cooked up an orderly plan to restart the peace process with the Palestinians.

The difficulty lies in the rich record of these respected personages. After all, Trump has already proven that it is worth relating to most of his statements as alternative truth. And Netanyahu skips happily along the border with the truth, one time on this side and the next time on the other side, and Lieberman is a master of illusion.

Yet this has created a logical problem. Because even if Trump did not say, or did not mean what he said, and no crisis is expected in the wake of annexation, this means Lieberman and Netanyahu are taking advantage of the American president in order to promote a sane agenda. This in its own right is an encouraging development, assuming that even the right will fear confronting the dragon living in the White House.

Let us assume for a moment that all of them are telling the truth and the crisis with the United States is truly a clear and present danger if annexation does take place.

The unavoidable conclusion is that Netanyahu was required to make it unequivocally clear that he has no intention of annexing the West Bank, not Area C, not Ma’aleh Adumim and not any other piece of land, whether in “settlement blocs” or outside of them.

To build is permitted, to annex is not. But this would not be such a great innovation, because this is Netanyahu’s position even if he has never declared it.

Netanyahu has no convincing solution for the status of millions of Palestinians, who would all at once become Israeli citizens and “steal” some 20 billion shekels from it, which is what Lieberman estimated would be the cost of National Insurance Institute and other social benefits Israel would have to cover.

Netanyahu cannot buy the version of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked either, in which Israel would absorb some 90,000 Palestinians living in Area C (which is under full Israeli civilian and security control) after it is annexed. Lieberman certainly is not a partner to this vision. He has a different vision, for Israeli Arabs to move to the West Bank, or anywhere else at all.

The status quo, in which millions of Palestinians continue to be occupied and the government continues to build in those territories, is the ideal situation as far as Lieberman and Netanyahu are concerned: If something has worked quite well for 50 years, why change it? But in order to maintain this status quo, someone must shackle Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

Without such leadership in Israel, the job has been outsourced to Trump, who will determine the red lines and pull Netanyahu’s burning chestnuts out of the fire. The problem facing Netanyahu and Lieberman is that Trump has still not given Israel full license to continue to build in the settlements.

Netanyahu himself admitted that the matter of the settlements has still not been closed with Trump. In other words, the equation of “yes to construction, no to annexation” has not yet been made kosher.

Lacking a clear and explicit statement from the horse’s mouth, it is possible to wonder — as Netanyahu’s astonished colleagues on the right charge — whether the prime minister is not intentionally exaggerating the strength of the American threat.

If during the term of Barack Obama the dialogue was public and open and the warnings did not need interpretation, during the short period Trump has been in office, Netanyahu’s life has been made more difficult. Trump cannot be taunted. It is impossible to make Congress revolt against him, and yes, it is still not permitted to shove settlements in his face.

Trump demands that Israel ask reasonably, without making it clear what this reasonableness means. This is how Netanyahu and Lieberman have found themselves in the position of analysts who need to deal with Bennett’s interpretations.

Even if this dilemma does not yield results, it is still a good thing. Because when Netanyahu has to decide between a crisis with Washington, real or invented, or unconditional surrender to Bennett, a spark of hope is ignited once again. Maybe sanity will prevail.