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Will Bibi Trade Iran for Palestine?

On Sunday, 17 members of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition sent him a letter making it clear they want no part of an Oslo rerun which would involve further surrender of territory and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The group, which included five deputy ministers, referenced last week’s 20th anniversary of the 1993 Oslo Accords which set off two decades of peace processing but they were most eager to quote, at length, a 2002 speech by Netanyahu in which he pledged never to accept a Palestinian state, since, as he said at the time, it would present a deadly threat to the Jewish state. But the context was the current negotiations currently being conducted between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that were convened earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But since no one, except perhaps for Kerry, thinks there’s a ghost of a chance that those talks will result in an agreement, it’s worth asking what exactly the 17 members of the Likud and Habayit Hayehudi parties are worrying about?

Interestingly, one of the leaders of this faction, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, acknowledged that consensus when he told the Times of Israel that the signers of the letter thought there was no chance the talks with the Palestinians would succeed, but said “we want to make sure we won’t be surprised.” What kind of a surprise is he anticipating? Israeli journalist Ben Caspit writing in AL Monitor thinks he has the answer to that question. According to Caspit, there may be a secret deal already in place that will guarantee Netanyahu’s agreement to a Palestinian state. The broad outline of that deal is this: Palestine for Iran. That means Israel trades a diplomatic triumph in the peace talks in exchange for an ironclad guarantee that the U.S. will prevent Iran from going nuclear. If, as Caspit claims, this proposal is already common knowledge in the upper echelons of the coalition, Kerry’s revival of the peace process with the Palestinians is merely a shadow game masking the real negotiations between the U.S. and Israel and that’s what really scares the Israeli right. Yet while Caspit’s claims seem to have substance, the assumption that Netanyahu or Obama are either interested in or capable of coming to such an agreement is still doubtful.

The first problem with any potential U.S.-Israel deal is the Iran component. Given the justified Israeli skepticism about the West’s infatuation with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, it is highly debatable whether Netanyahu would or could trust any promise from Obama on the subject. Obama’s disastrous handling of the Syrian chemical weapons issue only accentuates those doubts. It is reasonable to argue that Israel has no alternative but to trust U.S. promises on Iran since the window for the Jewish state to attack on its own may be closing. A diplomatic resolution of the nuclear dilemma or a U.S. attack would be far preferable than an Israeli strike that would have to be smaller in scale and therefore less effective. But right now the notion that Obama’s word is his bond is the sort of assumption that no rational person, let alone a cynic like Netanyahu can make, especially when the stakes are this high. Since Obama’s end of this deal will likely mean a diplomatic agreement with Iran and Netanyahu is not likely to believe Tehran has any interest in observing such a deal or that the U.S. would be willing to threaten an attack to enforce, it is hard to see how he could be cajoled into accepting it.

But even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that Obama can make such a promise and that Netanyahu and a majority of his government would buy it, any deal on “Palestine” will necessarily involve the Palestinians. The reason why the current talks have no chance is the same as the one that doomed previous negotiations, including the three Israeli offers of statehood that the Palestinians rejected. No Palestinian leader and certainly not a weakling like Mahmoud Abbas, has the will or the ability to sign any accord that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

Those who agree with Caspit’s claims more or less concede this but the theory behind the “Israel for Palestine” thesis posits that what will happen is that after Kerry’s talks fail, Obama will present Netanyahu with his own plan that the Israeli would have to accept. So would the Palestinians. Caspit says that would mean an Israeli withdrawal to the separation fence but not from Jerusalem or the major West Bank settlement banks that are enclosed by the barrier. No outlying settlements would be evacuated (theoretically preventing the breakup of the Likud over the deal) but much of the West Bank — how much Caspit is not sure — would be left for the Palestinians to have as their state that would be recognized by the U.N., the U.S. and Israel. The U.S. would promise the Palestinians that the borders would not be final but merely an interim stage before more negotiations that would reap them more territory including a share of Jerusalem.

Would the Palestinians accept such an interim deal? It would certainly be in their interests to do so since sovereignty would strengthen their position in future talks.

Yet even if we buy into the idea that Netanyahu longs to be treated with the international respect that goes to peacemakers and will break faith with his coalition in order to get it, there is no way he would agree to such a deal without the Palestinians being forced to agree to end the conflict for all time by recognizing Israel as the Jewish state and giving up on the right of return for the descendants of the 1948 Arab refugees. And that is something that Abbas is not likely to do no matter what the temptations since doing so would strengthen his Hamas rivals and endanger his life.

There are other reasons to think this may not happen.

One is that all of the loose talk about a secret deal already in place may be disinformation being spread by the United States or by some Israelis in order to build momentum for a peace deal. Anyone who believes everything they hear coming out of the mouth of Israeli politicians or U.S. diplomats is also likely to buy a bridge in Brooklyn.

Another is that Caspit’s concept takes it as a given that President Obama is willing to do anything to achieve peace in the Middle East in the same manner that Bill Clinton employed when he was orchestrating the process during the late 1990s as Oslo unraveled. Assuming that Obama has the will to do something on Iran is hard enough to believe. Making a similar assumption about his willingness to expend much of his increasingly scarce political capital to take a chance on Middle East peace is even harder. Though presidents sinking into irrelevance during troubled second terms often turn to foreign policy for triumphs they can no longer achieve at home, the notion that Obama is willing to take the chance it will all blow up in his face as it did to Clinton after the collapse of the 2000 Camp David talks and Yasir Arafat’s launch of the second intifada requires a prodigious leap of faith.

Last, there is the enigma of Netanyahu. As Caspit acknowledges, “Sometimes Netanyahu does reach agreements, but it is only on very rare occasions that he implements them.” Though he has traveled a long way toward accepting the concept of a two-state solution, he is not likely to repeat the mistakes made by his predecessors Yitzhak Rabin or Ariel Sharon. If he does sign on to a deal it will not be one that will trade land for terror as they did but for a complete and final peace. As much as he considers maintaining the alliance with the United States to be one of his top priorities, he has also shown he knows Israel must set limits on how far it can be pushed by its superpower friend. Moreover, the belief that his longing to be thought of as an eminent statesman will cause him to sacrifice his country’s security or give up one vital interest for another is to underestimate his character and his innate skepticism.

Rather than being a stalking horse for a future Obama peace plan, the Kerry talks may be exactly what they appear to be: a diplomatic dead-end pushed by a hubristic secretary of state with no plan B to deal with the consequences of certain failure. Supporters of Palestinian statehood hope and Israeli right-wingers fear that Netanyahu will soon make the deal with Obama that Caspit writes about but until we see it with our own eyes the rest of us should take “Iran for Palestine” with a shovelful of salt.



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