Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most recent proposal — negotiations on the settlement blocs — is nothing but a sophisticated trap. He can tell his ministers the talks are designed to win the Palestinians’ acquiescence for more construction in the settlements, without establishing a Palestinian state and ending the occupation.
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He can also present this initiative to the opposition and Israel’s friends abroad as talks on the future border between Israel and a Palestinian state. In fact, this initiative is geared toward buying quiet both at home and abroad, without paying a political price.
Experience shows that Netanyahu’s method has several principles: pretending to strive for peace, presenting an initiative that the Palestinians can’t possibly agree to, and blaming them while creating facts on the ground aimed at torpedoing any chance for a two-state solution.
Under the first principle, there has to be some diplomatic process, any kind of negotiation, with the world mobilizing to ensure some success while easing the pressure on Israel. The existence of a diplomatic process makes it harder for the left to oppose the government; any opposition comes mainly from the right. When the process fails, the public perceives it as a failure of the left, justifying the right’s path.
Under the second principle, the initiative must seem expressing a sincere desire to attain peace. But it has to be crafted so that the Palestinians can’t accept it, due to its real meaning.
This is what happened when Netanyahu first became prime minister in 1996 and embraced the Oslo Accords, after having been a chief opponent. Netanyahu said he would stick to that path but in his own way, adding a principle of reciprocity: “If they give, they’ll get; if they don’t, they won’t.”
This principle sounded reasonable, but it let Netanyahu declare anytime that the Palestinians weren’t delivering, so they didn’t deserve receiving anything in return. A stone-throwing incident or inflammatory words could always be a pretext for inaction.
This is what happened when Netanyahu signed the Hebron agreement with Yasser Arafat in 1997 and the Wye River Memorandum in 1998. In fact, these deals were redundant because they addressed the implementation of interim stages that had already been agreed on in 1995 and Israel was procrastinating in carrying out, including a withdrawal from Hebron. According to the Oslo Accords, the two sides were supposed to discuss the conflict’s final resolution and sign an agreement by May 1999, but Netanyahu never even started serious negotiations.
Under Netanyahu’s third principle, when an initiative fails the Palestinians are to blame. This is what happened when they refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Netanyahu knew that this condition — which sounds reasonable to Israeli ears — couldn’t be accepted by the Palestinians as a precondition. So as long as the Palestinians reject this, Netanyahu can portray them as rejecting the peace process.
A similar move was his freezing construction in the settlements for 10 months in 2009 and refusing to extend the period. The Palestinians refused to negotiate as long as construction continued, so Netanyahu could blame them.
The offer to negotiate the borders of the settlement blocs is yet another similar trap. Netanyahu has never presented a map of the blocs he’s referring to, having declared in the past that Hebron and Beit El would remain in Israel. If we go by the route of the separation barrier, 85 percent of the Israelis outside the 1967 borders (including Jerusalem) — 470,000 people — live in such blocs.
In contrast, the blocs according to Palestinian negotiators — based on a map they produced at the Annapolis talks — contain only 59 percent of the Israelis outside the 1967 borders; 325,000 people. This is a gap of 145,000 settlers and nearly 100,000 acres.
If Netanyahu’s goal is to obtain the Palestinians’ consent to continued Israeli construction in some settlements, without receiving assurances on borders, he’s deceiving everyone. The Palestinians can’t agree to construction in places that ruin any chance of establishing a viable state.
If he intends to discuss borders, the dialogue must include East Jerusalem and land swaps. If Netanyahu can reach an agreement on borders and Jerusalem, he can reach an agreement on a permanent two-state solution. It would be foolish to agree on borders without obtaining anything in return and completing the entire deal.
But Netanyahu has no interest in a resolution; this is only a trap. A diplomatic process is the best formula for putting the opposition to sleep. The left must avoid this trap and oppose his initiative of discussing settlement blocs.
Hagit Ofran heads Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project.