Commentary Magazine


Why Netanyahu Won’t “Go Big”

It turns out the Middle East peace process isn’t quite dead yet. According to the State Department, the “gaps are narrowing” in the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that are still taking place despite the fact that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas formally scuttled the negotiations last week by restarting his futile efforts to gain recognition for Palestinian statehood via the United Nations. Combined with a statement made by Abbas to an Arabic newspaper that he would be willing to keep talking after the expiration of the April deadline provided they were conducted according to his dictates, Secretary of State John Kerry’s brave talk about his initiative still having a chance of success looks a little less silly today.

Nevertheless, given that the Palestinians haven’t really budged an inch on any substantive issue since the talks re-started last year and that Kerry blamed Israel for what happened last week in a statement as bizarre (“poof”) as it was mendacious, it’s hard to see why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be inclined to play along with this farce any longer. Having already demonstrated that they are only interested in forcing Israel to pay for their presence at the table with concessions like the release of terrorist murderers or building freezes in the West Bank or even Jerusalem, it’s clear that Israel has little to gain from more such negotiations. But if the Palestinians do keep talking after April, there’s no doubt that the Israelis will be there too, even if it means bribing Abbas by freeing more murderers. The reason for this will not be because Netanyahu is weak or that the process has an actual chance of success. It will be due to the fact that the prime minister understands that Israel must never walk away from negotiations no matter how futile they are. Moreover, the futility of these efforts is precisely why he knows that his government must not, despite Kerry’s smears, be the one that breaks up the party.

Some Israeli right-wingers fear that Netanyahu will soon break under American pressure and embrace territorial withdrawals while perhaps not even getting a symbolic promise that this means the end of the conflict from Abbas. They’re not the only ones. Faithful Obama administration cheerleader Jeffrey Goldberg writes today in his latest column that the only reason Kerry is persisting in his efforts is because he thinks Netanyahu will do just that and, like Ariel Sharon before him, blow up his Likud Party and transform Israeli politics to get peace. But the problem with this scenario is the one point that even Goldberg concedes is the weak point in Kerry’s efforts: Abbas. The Palestinian has no intention of signing a peace deal under any circumstances.

If Netanyahu is, despite everything, going to keep showing up every time the Americans beckon, it isn’t because he is now suddenly willing to “go big” and make peace happen. Though his offer was not quite as generous (or should we say foolhardy) as the ones authored by his predecessors Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, he has still put a two-state solution offering Abbas almost all of the West Bank for an independent state. But the notion that peace depends on the person whom Goldberg derides as “this man of inaction” to “risk his political career for a final deal” is laughable. Indeed, by writing these words, Goldberg has more or less forfeited his status as an expert on the Middle East in favor of the title of faithful court stenographer to Kerry.

Before these talks started, wiser heads than Kerry warned the secretary that with the Palestinians divided between the Fatah-run West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza, Abbas was in no position to make peace. Everything that has happened since then has only confirmed that obvious fact as Abbas has stonewalled during the talks and seized on the first available pretext to flee them.

No prisoner release or settlement freeze will entice Abbas to say the two little words—“Jewish state”—that would indicate he was willing to end rather than pause the conflict with Israel. Nor is there anything that Netanyahu can conceivably do or say that would cause this aging, petty tyrant to risk his life merely to create a Palestinian state. Even nailing himself to the cross of settlement destruction—to use the inapt metaphor that Goldberg says is preferred by Vice President Biden—won’t get Abbas to make peace, and Netanyahu knows it. Though President Obama and Kerry laud Abbas as a man of peace, his unwillingness to speak of an end of the conflict indicates that he is no more willing to compromise and accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn than Arafat was.

That leaves Netanyahu with the unpleasant task of managing a conflict that can’t be solved by peace or war. That means showing up for peace talks but having no illusions about it being a fool’s errand. In doing so he may appear to Kerry and his friend Goldberg as a mere “mayor of Israel.” Netanyahu may be a prickly customer who inspires animus in most of his American interlocutors, but he is not stupid. Destroying the Likud to impress Kerry may sound like vision to Goldberg but Netanyahu remembers what happened when Ariel Sharon tried the same thing less than a decade ago before his Gaza withdrawal fiasco. The prime minister has no intention of sacrificing himself just to give Abbas one more chance to prove he can’t or won’t make peace. Anyone, in Israel or the United States, who thinks he will is underestimating both his intelligence and his political acumen.

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