This Isn't a New Netanyahu

Yet again the experts have been proven wrong: There's no newly pragmatic Bibi, so perhaps the time for a UN Security Council-brokered peace has come.

Henry Siegman
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It has been widely reported that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, who is starting his U.S. visit today, is likely to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for a two-state peace agreement between Israel and the PLO, even though several of his coalition partners have threatened to bring down his government were he to do so. Indeed, he has been warned they would leave his government even if he were just to agree to freeze new construction in the settlements while negotiations proceed.

These reports were construed by many as an indication of an important change in Netanyahu’s former bitter opposition to Palestinian statehood, which he always maintained was intended by Palestinians as a platform from which to assault the very existence of the Jewish state. To be sure, Netanyahu famously committed himself to a two-state solution in his Bar Ilan speech of 14 June, 2009. But no one in Israel believed him. Both his critics and his supporters understood it was intended to gain time for the achievement of irreversibility for Israel’s settlement project in the West Bank.

Now, however, it is widely believed that Netanyahu has finally come to understand that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is not sustainable, for it threatens to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state.

Unfortunately, this reading of Netanyahu’s intentions is as mistaken as it has always been in the past. Each time he has been elected to office - it is now his third time - the experts assured us we were dealing with a newly pragmatic Bibi, and each time they were proven wrong.

When Netanyahu was elected as prime minister in 1996, I was visiting former president Hosni Mubarak, who told me that messages he had received from Netanyahu through intermediaries reassured him that he had acquired a new and promising pragmatism. He dismissed the doubts I expressed, but the next time we met he declared his deep disappointment with Netanyahu and questioned his honesty. We had that same discussion when Netanyahu was re-elected prime minister in 2009.

To say that Netanyahu is not a visionary leader is an understatement. To be sure, he is a clever tactician who knows how to stay in office. That goal, which he believes is unbreakably linked to retaining his leadership of Israel’s political right wing, trumps every other domestic and international challenge that faces Israel. If reports about his current willingness to accept Kerry’s framework for a negotiated agreement are correct, it is evidence of Netanyahu’s tactical savvy, not of his conversion. For the new pragmatism he is credited with would be nothing more than more of the same—a deception providing additional time for a deepening of the settlement enterprise and for preparing the ground for blaming Palestinians for the failure of Kerry’s effort.

Why so pessimistic a conclusion? Because it is also reported that Netanyahu has convinced Kerry to present a framework that would not set the 1967 border as the starting point for minor territorial swaps; would not clearly require the capital of the new Palestinian state to be in East Jerusalem; and would not allow Palestinians, rather than Israel’s IDF, to control the new Palestinian state’s borders. The framework would also not prevent the presence of Israeli military and security forces, rather than international forces, to monitor the Palestinian transition to full statehood, and would allow Israel’s continued control of the Jordan Valley.

In other words, the framework would be entirely consistent with Israel’s continued control of Greater Israel.

As to the threat posed by Netanyahu’s acceptance of Kerry’s framework to the survival of Netanyahu’s coalition government, the only party likely to leave it in those circumstances is Habayit Hayehudi headed by Naftali Bennett. It is a party that Netanyahu could easily replace (the Labor Party’s new head, Itzhak Herzog, regularly declares his readiness to join Netanyahu’s government). Nothing would make Netanyahu happier than the departure of Bennett, a man he detests.

The only way Kerry could change the long history of U.S. diplomatic failure in bringing about a two-state accord is if he abandons the notion that the parties themselves are capable of reaching a reasonable two-state agreement if the U.S. provides the proper diplomatic formula. The U.S. should long ago have understood that given the vast discrepancies in the economic, military, and diplomatic capacities of Israel and the Palestinians, if left to their own devices, no such agreement is possible.

The only way the U.S. can persuade Israelis to accept a reasonable two-state accord is by changing Israel’s cost/benefit calculations, which can happen only if the U.S. informs Israel that it is pulling out of a fraudulent peace process and will allow the Security Council to set Israel’s borders and the consequences for noncompliance. This would instantly produce a new Israeli reasonableness that may yet rescue the Jewish and democratic character of the state.

That Israel needs such rescuing is beyond question. For would even one of the fourteen thousand participants in this week’s AIPAC meeting in Washington D.C. accept the democratic claims of a country that condemns its Jewish population to the kind of half-century-long subjugation, disenfranchisement and dispossession that the Palestinian people have been subjected to?

A state of the Jews would be well advised to heed the admonition of its sages in the Ethics of the Fathers: “Do not presume to judge your fellow man until you have stood in his place.”

Have we not stood in that place?

Henry Siegman is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project. He served as a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and as a non-resident research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He was the national director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America.

Kerry and Netanyahu at a press conference in Jerusalem, January 2, 2014.Credit: Reuters