Netanyahu Is Trying to Prevent Negotiations From Even Starting

Netanyahu's two conditions that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, and that the negotiations must deal with all the core issues ensure Abbas has no room to maneuver.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The prime minister is speaking to us in English again − this time from the pages of the Washington Post. The idea he proposed is actually captivating: It’s worth adopting just to see Benjamin Netanyahu sitting in a tent on the seam line between Jerusalem and Ramallah, perhaps next to the A-Ram checkpoint, from which he will be able to see the distress of thousands of Palestinians up close. “Until we reach an agreement,” is the time frame Netanyahu carved into his schedule for the planned tent sitting.

Interesting: He’ll sit in a tent for all eternity? And how much will this tent cost us? It’s possible to let the imagination run wild. One can just imagine the horror of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the threat of sitting under a canvas for even one weekend in the stifling heat, amid the swarms of flies, and all to reach an agreement that could achieved in a cool office, next to a mahogany table and platters of bourekas.

But Netanyahu is also bluffing in English. He will be prepared to enter the tent “without preconditions,” a nice but false slogan, since Netanyahu has two conditions to thwart negotiations: The Palestinians must recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, and the negotiations must deal with all the core issues.

This is a “double-lock” trick, in which Abbas will be required to discuss an explosive issue like the right of return in the very first stage of the talks, but must also agree from the start that there isn’t anything to discuss, since Israel is the state of the Jewish people. If Abbas doesn’t recognize this, Netanyahu won’t enter the tent. But if Abbas refuses to discuss the right of return, he will breach another of Netanyahu’s conditions, since the prime minister insists on discussing all the core issues at once. And thus, he has brought the negotiations to an end even before they start.

Netanyahu is wrapping his opposition to negotiations in a shroud of legitimacy. He doesn’t want to begin negotiations and then torpedo them over an issue like the drawing of borders or settlement construction. That would risk getting Israel accused of recalcitrance, and of intending to rule the territories forever, and would thus confront Washington with dilemmas that would threaten Israel’s international standing.

Instead, therefore, Netanyahu is trying to prevent negotiations from even starting. Until now, he has made good use of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s legacy − that Israel has “no partner for peace.” He also persuaded the public that it is impossible to conduct talks with someone who doesn’t recognize the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Thus at first glance, there’s nothing left that could undermine the legitimacy of his failure to begin negotiations.

When the differences between Netanyahu, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Finance Minister Yair Lapid require the use of a microscope, when the opposition has begun a summer siesta, when the U.S is gradually withdrawing into itself and Iran is evoking more curiosity than fear, Netanyahu can enjoy nirvana. He isn’t required to have a peace talks agenda, the West Bank is quiet, Hamas is under economic pressure due to its rift with Egypt and the loss of revenue from Iran, and if there are occasional terror attacks, their cost is much lower than that of relinquishing several trailer houses on a hill.

There remains just one insignificant, boring and bothersome problem: What is the Palestinian agenda? Does it include another violent uprising? Will the Palestinians renew their application to the United Nations, this time to achieve full membership as a state rather than just nonmember observer status? How far will the efforts to boycott Israel get?

Usually, such questions would ignite a public debate and keep a responsible government awake. But it seems that Israel is just waiting for unilateral steps by the Palestinians − because Israel has a monopoly on unilateral behavior. A Palestinian attempt to undermine it is always a “legitimate” pretext for ruling out negotiations and applying sanctions, like what happened after the Palestinians sought recognition as a state from the United Nations last year.

Israel, the government says, cannot be frightened by disaster scenarios. It is “always prepared for every scenario.” And if not, we can always blame intelligence for not predicting the next intifada, the civil unrest, the assassination of Abbas or the recognition of Hamas by European countries.

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