The narrative of the Middle East peace process according to the international media has pretty much been set in stone for the last 17 years since the first time Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel: the “hard line” leader’s intransigence is the primary obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. Ever since then, we have been endlessly told that his ideology has prevented the Jewish state from making efforts to negotiate with the Palestinians. The fact that Netanyahu signed peace deals during his first term and has called for a two-state solution that would allow for an independent state for Palestinians, and even froze building in the West Bank to entice Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table, hasn’t altered this. Nor will the prime minister’s latest attempt to bend over backwards to accommodate the Obama administration.
According to Haaretz, “senior Israeli officials” are confirming that Netanyahu “promised U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ‘to rein in’ construction of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem until mid-June.” In doing so, Netanyahu will be depriving the Palestinian Authority of its standard excuse for not returning to peace talks four and a half years after fleeing them in the wake of Ehud Olmert’s offer of a state that included parts of Jerusalem as well as almost all of the West Bank. But don’t expect anyone in the liberal Western media that treats Netanyahu like a piñata to give him credit for playing ball with Kerry’s hubristic effort to achieve a deal that has eluded all of his predecessors. Even worse, this very far-reaching concession is unlikely to coax the leaders of Fatah, let alone the Hamas terrorists who rule the independent state in all but name that exists in Gaza, to negotiate.
Let’s understand that by even informally freezing building in Jerusalem as well as the West Bank, Netanyahu is tacitly agreeing to a measure that undermines Israel’s very legitimate legal claims in these areas. The freeze, which will not prevent Arabs from building in these areas during this time, is an indication that the prime minister accepts the right of Americans to dictate, even for a short period and for symbolic purposes, where Jews may live in their ancient homeland. While Netanyahu’s futile 2010 freeze was only in the West Bank, this appears to include parts of Jerusalem. As such, it is a very significant measure that ought, along with his recent reaffirmation of his support for “two states for two peoples,” convince both the Palestinians and the world that he is ready to deal if they are prepared to talk.
Understandably, the move has already generated considerable pushback from the Jewish right with even, as Haaretz reports, members of Netanyahu’s own government saying that he has gone too far. But the problem that this episode illustrates is not just that the prevailing narrative about Netanyahu is false but that his latest attempt to give the administration the room it says it needs to promote peace will boomerang against him when it inevitably fails.
That Abbas won’t bite on Obama and Kerry’s invitation for direct peace talks without preconditions is almost a certainty that Netanyahu’s quiet acceptance of a very important precondition won’t alter. The political culture of Palestinian society still regards any deal that would recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn as impossible. Nor can Abbas give up on the Palestinian “right of return” and definitively end the conflict and survive. Even if he wanted to do so, the threat of Hamas means that he can’t.
Thus when June comes and goes and there are no negotiations and no prospect of any in the foreseeable future, Netanyahu will understandably lift the quiet freeze and allow building in areas that Israel would keep even in the event of a peace deal. But once he does so, the Palestinians will scream bloody murder about his “provocation” and pretend that this is the real obstacle to talks, secure in the knowledge that most of the international media would revert to their “hard line” Netanyahu narrative and echo their lies.
Would Netanyahu and Israel be better off skipping this farce by not making this concession? Maybe. But Netanyahu understands that his job is to keep the U.S.-Israel alliance intact and must harbor the hope that after four years of being stiffed by the Palestinians, President Obama will understand who the real obstacles are. Hopes such as these spring eternal, but like those he may have about the press changing its tune about him, that’s probably not a realistic scenario.