The rejectionist: Netanyahu and the peace talks

The Palestinian leadership changed, the political circumstances shifted, administrations came and went, but every round of talks involving Netanyahu follows the same dynamic, and ends the same way.

When talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed last summer, a couple of pollsters asked Israelis whether they think Prime Minister Netanyahu actually supports the two-state solution – which, at least in theory, was the agreed-upon goal of the process. The results didn’t receive enough attention at the time: one poll, published on Channel 2’s website, found that 50 percent of the public didn’t think Netanyahu genuinely adopted the two-state solution, as opposed to 23 percent who thought he did. Four days later, Haaretz came out with a poll that showed roughly the same results: 59 percent did not think that Bibi had committed to the two-state framework, while only 34 percent thought he had. It’s not surprising then that a clear majority in both polls didn’t think the talks would lead to an agreement (70 percent were skeptical in the Channel 2 poll, and 69 percent on Haaretz).

Polling on political image and perception can be tricky, so one should take them with a grain of salt. But Kerry’s team might have saved itself some time and trouble if it had taken those numbers into consideration. At the talks’ most optimistic moment, a clear majority of Israelis believed Bibi was bluffing.

As the negotiations moved forward – in time, not in substance – Netanyahu insisted on preparing the public for failure. If he made any concessions to the American team, they remain a tightly kept secret. Netanyahu rejected the idea of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, rejected Palestinian sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, rejected even symbolic recognition of the right of return (while placing a very central demand for symbolic recognition of Israel as “a Jewish State”).

More important, in his hostility toward the Palestinians, Netanyahu actually moved the public political barometer to the right during the negotiation period. By the time the talks broke down, if you were listening to the prime minister you would have thought that it was absolute madness to sign anything with Ramallah. Compare that to the language of “partners” that previous Israeli prime ministers used to describe their Palestinian counterparts, or their talk of “a common future.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry following their meeting in Jerusalem, December 5, 2013. (Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry following their meeting in Jerusalem, December 5, 2013. (Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO)

So why did Bibi enter these talks? I think Netanyahu understands the real dynamic of the peace process, as opposed to what others make of it. The diplomatic process is centered on a trade-off of land for legitimacy. Israel is expected to pay with land it holds claims to – in other words, to free the Palestinians living on it from the military occupation – and in return, receives legitimacy from the Palestinians, then the Arab world and the rest of the international community.

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However, there is an unequal dynamic at work. While Israel — and the Israeli leadership that negotiates — receives legitimacy as it enters into talks, the Palestinians are only supposed to win their share long after the process is over. A Palestinian leadership bleeds support from the moments talks are called; for Israelis, the tough moment is about the evacuation of land, which only comes years after the ceremony on the White House lawn. You could actually see this dynamic at work in the past eight months: Netanyahu got stronger (his numbers at home rose as the talks began) while the PA lost what was left of its credibility by suspending opposition to the occupation and agreeing to a process that has yet to bring any real achievements.

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Even if talks succeed, Netanyahu has a history of not delivering his part of agreements. After he got into the Prime Minister’s Office in 1996, Netanyahu refused to carry out the third and final withdrawal that Israel committed to in the second Oslo Accord. The Clinton Administration had to lead another process – on the implementation of the previous agreement – resulting in the Wye River Memorandum in 1998. The memorandum also had three stages; Netanayhu carried out the first and stalled on the second two, airing his old claims of Palestinian incitement and unilateralism. A certain pattern has emerged.

A couple of years later, in a private conversation with settlers, Netanyahu – not knowing he was being taped – explained how he used loopholes in the Oslo Accords in order to derail it. He also boasted that dealing with the American administration didn’t pose a problem, because “the U.S. can be easily pushed.”

The task was easier this time because Netanyahu didn’t have a real process on his hands when he returned to the Prime Minister’s Office – only the emerging framework for a two-state solution that Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert built with the PA. Netanyahu demanded that he not be bound by previous offers and wanted to “talk about everything,” thus rejecting the 1967 borders, compromise on Jerusalem and even redefining what “settlement blocs” mean. This led to four months of futile talks between the two sides, until somewhere in December when the secretary of state started working on his own framework.

The talks with the Palestinians pretty much ended at this point. Netanyahu’s goal became reaching an understanding with the Obama administration that would relieve international pressure off Israel for a long period of time. (At some point, Tzipi Livni went as far as saying that an agreement with the Palestinians is impossible, but “we might be able to have one with the world.”) Netanyahu then made the most maximalist demand about legitimacy – recognizing Israel as a Jewish state – before he was even willing to discuss borders or settlements. Then, true to his old habits, he refrained from carrying out his part of the deal – releasing the fourth and final group of prisoners – without getting more in return: a comfortable extension of the talks, and perhaps even a rare political trophy such as the release of Jonathan Pollard. The U.S., after all, can be easily pushed.

The bottom line would remain the same: this is not a symmetric conflict. The negotiations are not equal, just as the battlefield is not equal. But even with this given inequality, Netanyahu presents a unique phenomenon: a leader who has devoted his entire career to derailing the process and preventing the formation of a viable Palestinian state. He is this process’s true rejectionist. I understand the Obama administration’s political need to assign equal blame to both parties now that everything is collapsing before our eyes. But I also hope that in their mind, and behind closed doors, they know better. After all, even Netanyahu’s own voters didn’t take his peacenik image too seriously.

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