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Why the World Should Test Netanyahu’s Newfound Commitment to Peace

Bibi announces support for Arab Peace Initiative. It doesn’t matter if it’s real.

Yair Rosenberg
May 28, 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, May 19, 2015. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, May 19, 2015. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

If there were one word to describe the spirit of Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election campaign, it would not be “compromise.” From questioning the viability of the two-state solution to vowing to keep Jerusalem undivided, the prime minister repeatedly appealed to hard-right voters in a successful bid to draw them away from rival conservative parties. And yet, less than a month after his new government’s swearing-in ceremony, Netanyahu has made a remarkable about-face on the peace process.

First, last week, in a meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, the prime minister expressed a willingness to negotiate Israel’s borders in the West Bank, delineating which settlements Israel could build in, and where it would cede land to Palestine. This openness came as a surprise, Haaretz reporter Barak Ravid noted, because it was “the first time since he took office in 2009 that Netanyahu has voiced willingness to discuss the size of the settlement blocs and their borders with the Palestinians.” Doing so would open the door to freezing settlement construction outside the negotiated border line, effectively halting the settler enterprise in its tracks.

The prime minister’s second act, however, was even more eye-opening. At a press conference in Tel Aviv today, Netanyahu backed the Arab Peace Initiative, a 2002 proposal put forward by the Arab League that outlines a path to two states. Due to its problematic formulations on Palestinian refugees, among other provisions, no Israeli prime minister or government has accepted the API as a basis for negotiations—until now. Netanyahu outlined his reservations on refugees and security, of course, but his bottom line was “the principle of trying to achieve an understanding with the leading countries in the Arab world is a good one.”

It seems clear that a desire to head off international pressure–from EU settlement product labeling initiatives to a looming prospective U.N. Security Council resolution mandating Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank–has led Netanyahu to take more conciliatory public positions on peace. Whether or not he is actually interested in turning those words into actions, however, is another matter entirely, given his checkered track record.

Unsurprisingly, then, global reactions to Netanyahu’s newfound enthusiasm for the peace process have ranged from cautiously optimistic to scornful. After meeting with the prime minister, European officials reportedly “agreed that Netanyahu had done the maximum possible to try to signal the European Union that he’s interested in turning over a new leaf.” While unsure of his commitment to negotiating settlement borders, they resolved to pursue the prospect. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, meanwhile, rejected Netanyahu’s border talks proposal outright, deeming it a non-starter. Likewise, Ilan Goldenberg, a member of John Kerry’s ill-fated negotiating team, dubbed the gambit “cynical even by Bibi’s standards.”

Reading these responses, it might seem like divining Netanyahu’s intentions is necessary in order to formulate an appropriate political response to his pronouncements. But the truth is, it doesn’t actually matter. In fact, both Bibi-skeptics and Bibi-believers should treat him as if he is serious, because it will ultimately further the prospect of peace regardless.

Now, it’s easy to see why those who accept Netanyahu’s sincerity should pursue his proposals. After all, they could bring peace. But even those who think Netanyahu has no intention of following through on his words, and see his statements as mere stalling tactics to allay international opprobrium, should pretend as if they are made in good faith. Why? Because just entertaining the notion of setting Israel’s borders, stopping settlement expansion, and negotiating on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative, has already put Netanyahu at odds with his settler coalition partners and imperiled his premiership.

As soon as news broke of Netanyahu’s proposal to negotiate final borders for the West Bank, Jewish Home minister Uri Ariel took to Facebook to denounce the prospect as “dangerous and precedential,” warning that it violated the governing coalition’s commitment to preserving Jewish sovereignty. Likewise, after Netanyahu signaled his openness to the API, while offering the caveat that Israel would need to maintain a security presence in the West Bank for some time before fully withdrawing, former West Bank council head Dani Dayan retorted, “Netanyahu is wrong when he says Israel must control militarily Judea and Samaria for many years. It must be forever.”

In other words, every time Netanyahu publicly commits to the prospect of peace initiatives, he drives a wedge into his governing coalition. A typical government could weather such storms, but Netanyahu’s is far from typical—it is a razor-thin 61-seat coalition with a majority dependent on just one seat. Any disgruntled lawmaker can hold it hostage or even bring it down.

This means that, for those who think peace is not in the cards while Netanyahu is in power, the best thing they can do right now is to pretend that it is. Take Netanyahu at his word and use his commitments to heighten the tensions in his coalition. Even if such pressure produces little headway with the Palestinians, the more the topic is on the agenda—and the more Netanyahu is forced to swear public fealty to the notion of curbing settlement building—the more precarious his coalition will become.

Moreover, in offering up both the West Bank borders and API of his own initiative, Netanyahu has effectively neutered his usual defense against international pressure on the peace process. In the past, he has been able to turn such pressure into a political asset by portraying himself to Israeli voters as a principled leader standing up to an unfair world. But this time—unlike by European-initiated U.N. resolutions, or Obama administration criticisms—the maelstrom will be of his own making. The proposals are Netanyahu’s own. If he goes along with them, he creates further friction in his fractious coalition. And if he backs off, he comes across as the very opposite of the strong leader he seeks to embody to the electorate.

The basic political reality, then, is this: For those who believe Netanyahu is open to compromise, he just handed them an olive branch. For those who don’t, he just handed them a club. In either case, both groups would be foolish not to use it.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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