Public Apathy Gives Netanyahu Advantage in Direct Talks

People think Netanyahu is bluffing, which is convenient for a politician who wants to turn his back on prior positions without incurring any criticism or coalition turmoil.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embarking on direct negotiations for a final status agreement with the Palestinians from a better position than his predecessors, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, who were in touching distance of an agreement but encountered Palestinian rejection.

Netanyahu is popular among the public and enjoys unrivaled political strength, unlike Barak, whose coalition broke apart prior to his departure for the Camp David summit. Olmert lost his public backing as a result of the Second Lebanon War.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Any agreement Netanyahu would arrive at would be met with overwhelming public support. Beyond that, the prime minister has another advantage: Expectations for the renewed negotiations are negligible. The small number of people actually interested in the peace process think Netanyahu is bluffing.

Such public apathy is convenient for a politician who wants to turn his back on prior positions without incurring any condemnation, criticism or coalition turmoil. It's what Netanyahu needs to prepare the general Israeli public, the forum of seven inner cabinet ministers and the international community for a change in his approach to managing the conflict.

The prime minister is entering negotiations with two primary demands: Palestinian recognition of Israel as the "state of the Jewish people"; and the stationing of the Israeli army in the Jordan Valley, along the eastern border of a future Palestinian state, as a buffer against the smuggling of rockets and other heavy weapons.

He also wants Jewish settlements in the Etzion Bloc to remain in Israel, as well as Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel, and he is committed to the unity of Jerusalem. These principles are no different from what Barak and Olmert proposed to the Palestinians at Camp David and Annapolis, respectively.

Since resuming the post of prime minister, Netanyahu has not set foot anywhere beyond the so-called Olmert map - which roughly follows the route of the security barrier, with lands swaps. More importantly, he has not said that the settlements are important for Israel's security.

This is not to say he has decided to evacuate settlements beyond the settlement blocs and hand them to the Palestinian state. It does, however, mean that his opening position provides room for compromise with the Palestinians as long as they don't take an "all or nothing" stance.