Commentary Magazine


Netanyahu Still Betting on Palestinian “No”

Last night, Israel’s Channel Two reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to give his approval for continuing negotiations with the Palestinians along the lines of a framework presented by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. That framework reportedly will call for the creation of a Palestinian state based on the pre-June 1967 borders with land swaps that will enable 75-80 percent of Jews currently living in the West Bank to remain within the state of Israel. It will specifically call for the Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state while denying the “right of return” for the descendants of the Palestinian refuges of 1948 and providing international security guarantees for Israel. The future of Jerusalem is left undecided.

Israel does get some of what it has long sought in this framework. But the idea of placing most of the West Bank in the hands of a Palestinian Authority that remains bent on fomenting hatred of Israel and Jews, as well as so weak and corrupt that it is likely to be unable to create a stable, let alone peaceful neighbor for Israel seems a dangerous gamble for Netanyahu to take, both from the perspectives of his nation’s security and the ability of his center-right coalition to survive.

Why would Netanyahu agree to this framework?

There are two reasons. One is that its non-binding nature commits him only to more talks and not to its implementation, a point that should help him to persuade worried coalition partners like the Jewish Home Party’s Naftali Bennett to stay in the Cabinet. But the other reason explains more about Netanyahu’s strategy in dealing with Kerry’s obsessive pursuit of an agreement with the Palestinians: he believes that sooner or later the Palestinians will say no. In what has become the diplomatic version of playing chicken, the prime minister appears to be convinced that the PA will blink and abandon the talks long before Israel is forced to live with the real-life drawbacks of Kerry’s vision. And based on what the Palestinians are saying and what they have done in the past, there’s every reason to believe he’s right.

Like Netanyahu, the Palestinians also appear to be willing to agree to Kerry’s framework. That’s because the chief concern for both sides appears to avoid blame for the failure of Kerry’s diplomatic gambit. Since Kerry knows that there is no possibility of Israel and the Palestinians actually agreeing on a final-status treaty within the original nine-month time frame for the talks, the purpose of the framework is to extend the negotiations for at least another year. That gives both parties the ability to dodge the bullet of blame while enabling Kerry to keep shuttling to the Middle East and to pretend that he is about to cut the Gordian Knot of peace.

But even as the PA has agreed to continue talking, they again signaled that one of the key elements of the framework—recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn—is something they’ll never accept in a treaty. PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Munich Security Conference that Israel’s longstanding demand to be recognized as a Jewish state that had been incorporated by Kerry into the framework would require the Palestinian representative to “change my narrative” in which Jewish history is erased. Since Palestinian national identity is inextricably linked to the denial of the rights of Jews to any part of the country, they regard any peace as merely a truce rather than a conclusion to the conflict.

Why then would the Palestinians also accept the framework? Part of the reason stems from the dynamic that was on display in Munich at which Kerry openly speculated that if he failed, Israel would be subjected to economic boycotts. While the State Department later tried to rationalize if not walk back these comments by saying the secretary was merely commenting on a trend with which he didn’t agree rather than threatening the Jewish state, the Palestinians and their enablers in the European Union well understand that all the pressure in the talks is being directed at the Israelis, and not at them.

The history of the last 20 years of negotiations since the Oslo Accords were signed justifies that conclusion. No matter how much land the Jewish state has conceded since 1993, the onus has always been placed on Israel to sacrifice even more no matter what the Palestinians do or say to demonstrate their unwillingness to make peace or live by the terms of the agreements they’ve signed. But no matter how far Kerry tilts the diplomatic playing field against Israel, Netanyahu appears to be counting on the Palestinians inability to agree to Israel’s demand for recognition at the conclusion of Kerry’s talks.

Considering that Abbas’s predecessor Yasir Arafat turned down two such offers of statehood in 2000 and 2001 and the PA leader fled talks with the Israelis in 2008 so as to avoid being forced to do the same thing, Netanyahu has reason to think this negotiation will end in the same way. With Hamas still in control of Gaza and Abbas only holding onto power in the West Bank with the help of the Israelis, there’s no sign of a sea change in Palestinian public opinion that would enable him to survive signing a peace deal with Israel that would renounce the “right of return” and recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Netanyahu understands that additional negotiations based on Kerry’s framework will mean another year of intense U.S. pressure that will add to the increased European efforts to isolate Israel. Agreeing to the framework is a dangerous game that leaves him little room to maneuver to defend his country’s rights or its security, since he knows the arrangements for guaranteeing Israel’s safety in the document won’t be worth the paper they’re printed on once a deal is in place. But he appears confident that the political culture of the Palestinians will once again determine the outcome of these talks in the same manner that it has sealed the doom of every other negotiation dating back to the 1930s. Judging by the tone and the content of the non-stop incitement to hatred being conducted by the PA, it’s difficult to argue with his conclusion.

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