The Moment of Decision Nears

A resumption of peace negotiations centered around an almost total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would present Netanyahu with a two-fold challenge.

In his speech at the Herzliya Conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he thought negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would be resumed in the coming weeks under American mediation. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said over the weekend that the focus of the talks would be the 1967 borders, with territory swaps.

That formula was the basis of the previous Israeli government's negotiations with the Palestinians, but it is at odds with the stance of most Likud cabinet members in the current government, who have expressed support for the Land of Israel lobby in the Knesset. The revived lobby is preaching "strengthening the hold of the State of Israel throughout the Land of Israel and particularly in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]." Of all the Likud cabinet ministers, only Netanyahu, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor and Improvement of Government Services Minister Michael Eitan haven't come out with expressions of support for the lobby.

A resumption of peace negotiations centered around an almost total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank presents Netanyahu with a two-fold challenge. If he takes positions in keeping with the sentiments of the Land of Israel lobby, he will be thrust into a confrontation with the U.S. administration and denounced internationally as an opponent of peace. But if he takes the path proposed by Secretary of State Clinton, he will run into confrontation with his own Likud party and his right-wing coalition partners.

Netanyahu has thus far avoided making a decision and for some time has relied on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' refusal to engage in direct negotiations. He has also relied on protracted discussions with the United States over the construction freeze in the settlements.

Supporters of the right wing have made it clear to Netanyahu that they are not ready to countenance even the partial halt to new construction in the West Bank settlements. A new Haaretz-Dialog poll has shown that Netanyahu has lost the support of voters on the right, and even his West Bank tree-planting activity at Gush Etzion, in Ma'aleh Adumim and in Ariel has not returned them to the fold.

Netanyahu's position in favor of the ultimate annexation of three West Bank settlement blocs and security surveillance on the border of a future Palestinian state are not at odds with proposals espoused by the previous Kadima-led government of Ehud Olmert. Netanyahu, however, has not yet managed to be convincing that he intends to realize a two-state solution through a partition of the land.

Clinton's statement makes it clear that Netanyahu's grace period is nearing an end. Instead of senselessly courting the right, he should take a courageous stand and state clearly to his political partners that a withdrawal from the territories and the evacuation of the settlements are what is needed. Otherwise Defense Minister Ehud Barak's warning that without partition Israel will become a binational apartheid state will become a reality.