A Prime Minister Seeking a Direction

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been speaking enthusiastically over the past few days about the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and calling for a “peace tent” to be put up between Jerusalem and Ramallah. What happened to him? Has he been influenced by President Shimon Peres’ birthday celebrations? Or perhaps by Economics Minister Naftali Bennett’s “shrapnel in the buttocks” speech that spoke of the perpetuation of the conflict? Or perhaps he simply misses Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas?

We can identify four reasons for the prime minister’s left turn. First of all, there’s the boredom and the loneliness. Netanyahu lost control of the political agenda even before the elections, and has not retaken it since. His warnings about the Iranian danger arouse little interest among Israelis, who are focused on the economic situation. Netanyahu is steering clear of the economy because he has no solutions, and so that anger over taxes and budget cuts will be directed at his adversary, Finance Minister Yair Lapid. The interim result is the opposite: Lapid has indeed lost popularity, but he is perceived as the key man in the cabinet. Netanyahu has nothing to say and he needs a new message that will reposition him as a leader in the public mind.

Secondly, Netanyahu wants to dismantle the alliance between Lapid and Bennett. That is the supreme political interest of the prime minister, who since the elections has been faced with a fortified wall of Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, which he has not been able to crack. The only way to divide “the brothers” goes through the Palestinian channel, where Bennett and Lapid have vastly different approaches. Bennett is avowedly against a Palestinian state, while Lapid views it as a necessity, as he told the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth in an interview. A breakthrough vis-a-vis the Palestinians, if it is accompanied by the evacuation of settlers, will cast Bennett out of the cabinet and imprison Lapid inside it.

Third, the election of Hasan Rowhani as Iran’s president has magnified Netanyahu’s anxiety over an American-Iranian deal that will come at Israel’s expense. That is the backdrop to Netanyahu ratcheting up his demands to stop the Iranian nuclear program. His situation recalls the isolation of Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of Taiwan, ahead of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China. Rowhani’s rise reduces the likelihood that Israel will attack Iran; but if Netanyahu is still dreaming about a military operation to destroy the installations at Natanz, Fardo and Arak, and even if he only wants to be listened to, he has to ensure American support – and pay for it with concessions to the Palestinians.

Fourth, Netanyahu is worried about the growing international boycott against Israel. Most Israelis still do not feel it, but the prime minister is under pressure. He hears warnings in the business community about the damage the diplomatic impasse is causing, and says that calls for boycotts are the contemporary form of classical anti-Semitism. If he thought it was harmless noise, he would ignore or minimize the problem. But Netanyahu apparently fears being remembered as the leader during whose time Israel was distanced from the family of nations. All these reasons are pushing Netanyahu toward the messages he presented four years ago in his Bar-Ilan speech, where for the first time he supported the establishment of a Palestinian state. Then, he did not mention the danger of a binational state; now, he is adopting the terminology of the Zionist left, which is considered illegitimate on the right.

What can Netanyahu do? The chance of a permanent status agreement is nil. Hamas will not sign an “end of conflict and end of demands” agreement. Mahmoud Abbas will not recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people and Israel will not agree to the “right of return” to its territory of Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Netanyahu can recognize a Palestinian state as early as the upcoming UN General Assembly and announce that its borders will be determined by negotiations. “The world” will not make do with words and will demand to see proof of his seriousness in the form of evacuation of settlements, even a symbolic evacuation. The Israeli public will support him.

And yet it is not clear whether Netanyahu can act as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did at the time and go against his own political base. So far, he has refrained from doing so. On the other hand, does he have a choice?

Netanyahu addressing the Knesset April 24, 2013.Credit: Emil Salman

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