The Price of Asymmetrical Concessions

Why not enjoy the benefits of intra-cabinet discord, and play the same good cop-bad cop routine that the Palestinians have been playing successfully for ages?

Critics of the Netanyahu government increasingly tax it for a lack of policy cohesiveness among its ministers. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says we have an excellent chance of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians within a year, the rest of the cast - they insist - must be on the same page. It is intolerable, crow the critics, for Avigdor Lieberman to be off-message by telling the UN General Assembly that a long-term interim solution between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is the best that one can hope for, or for Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon to opine, as he did last week, that, "There is no chance of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians in the near future."

First of all, it is rare for any Israeli government to speak with one voice. Since the bygone days of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett, cabinets have always displayed fissures, ranging from subtle nuances to yawning gaps. During the first Rabin government, it was then-defense minister Shimon Peres who played the cabinet hawk on issues such as "interim accords" (Israeli withdrawals ) and settlements, to Rabin's more dovish position. By the 1984-1990 unity governments and the second Rabin government, they had reversed roles. Menachem Begin jousted with defense minister Ezer Weizman and foreign minister Moshe Dayan. David Levy vexed both Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Nor are such contradictions unique to Israel. As the indefatigable busybody Jimmy Carter visited us again this week, we could recall that during his administration, three contradictory foreign policies were being pursued simultaneously: secretary of state Cyrus Vance continued Kissinger-era detente with the Soviet Union; national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski cozied up to the People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union's prime adversary in the era; while at the United Nations, ambassador Andrew Young emphasized north-south relations and downplayed the East-West conflict. Even the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, had to tolerate "wets" who questioned her policy in her first two cabinets.

It all boils down to the question that Lyndon Johnson posed graphically and crudely: Do you want them inside your tent pissing out, or outside the tent pissing in? This is the real world of politics, even in countries without coalition governments.

Those who proclaim themselves horrified by discordant notes sounded by Israeli ministers selectively display their penchant for harmony when the false notes are played by more hawkish ministers. Defense Minister Ehud Barak had no problem straying off the reservation when he called for dividing Jerusalem, a few weeks back, in contradiction to coalition guidelines. When Lieberman says what 76 percent of American Jewry believe, according to a recent poll - that the Palestinians want to destroy Israel - he is doing so out of petty partisanship, but when the far more politically beleaguered Barak plays to the dovecote, he is merely displaying statesmanship.

If we acknowledge the reality of intra-cabinet discord, why not enjoy its benefits and play the same good cop-bad cop routine that the Palestinians have been playing successfully for ages? Every week, we are regaled with stories about how PA president Mahmoud Abbas is on the verge of resignation and that he needs to show results, or else Hamas and opponents within Fatah will depose him. Well, maybe we too can spin the idea that Netanyahu needs to show some gains from the peace process or else he will be gobbled up by the "hard-liners"?

Second, somebody has to play Israel's melody loudly and clearly, as Netanyahu isn't, having essentially bought Ehud Barak's high-risk strategy of offering the Palestinians anything if they will just agree to closure, in the expectation that the Palestinians will turn him down. To judge by Jack Khoury's report (in Haaretz Hebrew edition online, October 15 ), Mahmoud Abbas vindicates this policy. In his meeting with Hadash Knesset members last week, Abbas claimed that a peace agreement would have been signed already had he made concessions, but that he, Abbas (speaking, ironically, to the party that first coined the slogan "two states for two peoples" ), will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and insists that the negotiations be predicated on the Arab peace initiative and on UN GA Resolution 194, which calls for the return of refugees to sovereign Israel.

The problem is that Netanyahu, like Barak, may enjoy a tactical victory, but at the cost of strategic concessions. Back in 2000, Barak thought he was making Yasser Arafat an offer he couldn't refuse by putting Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley on the table. Arafat walked away, and launched his suicide bomb offensive. Well, I gave nothing away, Barak congratulated himself - but, oh, did he: by breaking a longstanding taboo and making Jerusalem and other vital areas negotiable.

Netanyahu agreed to another settlement freeze in return for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, knowing that Abbas would not bite. However, he has conceded the asymmetry that says Arabs are allowed to build while Israel is barred from construction in areas in dispute between the parties, including Jerusalem. To counteract this situation - whereby the Arabs concede nothing while we increasingly concede assets in principle - we need more discordant notes from Ya'alon, Lieberman, Benny Begin and anyone else with similar temerity and honesty.


Dr. Amiel Ungar, a political scientist, is a regular contributor to Haaretz English Edition.