What does Bibi actually want?

Finally recognizing the pressure over the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu seems to be negotiating for ‘an agreement with the world.’

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills.org)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills.org)

What does Bibi want? I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that question. With so many attempts to decipher him – in interviews with his proxies, accounts by former employees and analyses by pundits – speculation over the Israeli prime minister’s true intentions should have been recognized as an Olympic sport by now. TIME magazine had no problem twice posing the exact same question — will Netanyahu make peace – on its cover, 16 years apart.

The answer is hidden in plain sight: There is no master plan. The status quo, this ambiguity regarding the future, crisis management style – that’s Netanyahu, for better and for worse. His qualities do have an up-side: Bibi, now Israel’s second-longest-serving prime minister, behind the state’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, is also one of the most restrained leaders this country has known. Except for one short Gaza campaign, he has never launched a military operation or war.

Read +972’s full coverage of Kerry’s peace process

His restraint is a matter of personality but also in line with the Revisionist movement’s political tradition, whose leaders never wanted to reshape the region with war and diplomacy the way the Labor Party did.

Also on the Palestinian issue, maintaining the status quo is a strategic decision Israeli conservatives made to replaced their hopes for “Greater Israel,” which was prevalent on the Right until the Second Intifada. According to this line of thinking, context and conditions in the Middle East change, and eventually an opportunity will emerge for Israel to maintain control of all the land from the sea to the Jordan River. For example: the demographic balance could shift in the Jews’ favor; or the accumulative effect of the settlements might force the world to accept the new reality; or there could even be regime change in Jordan that would turn the East Bank into the Palestinian State, and so on.

The important point is that Israel’s leadership needs to stand strong against international pressure and play for time.

In line with Netanyahu’s politics, strategy, his movement’s tradition and his personality, the prime minister would have liked to maintain the current status quo in the West Bank and Gaza. When he returned to the prime minister’s office four years ago, he wanted to deal with Iran and the economy – both fields in which he feels real urgency, and even a certain historical destiny. I think part of his popularity has to do with the desire in the Israeli mainstream at that time to ignore the Palestinians altogether.

The Israeli conservative tendency to underestimate the Palestinian challenge is a mirror image of Labor’s hubris – and Netanyahu did end up facing some pressure over the occupation, which was all too expected. When that happened he started calling for direct negotiations “without preconditions,” knowing that he could drag the talks on forever while gaining the legitimacy of a peacemaker. This trick worked during his first term, and to some extent, during the first few months of the Kerry process. The Prime Minister’s Office didn’t even bother preparing an outline of its preferred solution. His negotiation policy amounted to posing new demands every now and then, from recognizing Israel as a “Jewish State” to lasting IDF presence in the Jordan Valley.

I think by now Netanyahu has started negotiating more seriously, but not with the Palestinians. His hope is to reach a new “agreement with the world” on a Palestinian entity — one that is less than a state. Livni, who is way more committed than Netanyahu to the two-state idea, has made similar statements recently.

“If there is no Palestinian partner, then we need to make an agreement with the world. The negotiations are not only with the Palestinians,” Livni said.

If Netanyahu can reach an understanding with the U.S. about how the new Palestinian entity will look, the burden will be lifted from Israel, regardless of the Palestinian response.

I assume that Bibi will give a positive answer to Kerry’s proposal but also present reservations, probably on the need to maintain an IDF presence in the Jordan Valley, on the 1:1 land swaps (if the Americans include them) and maybe on Jerusalem. The Palestinians will have much more trouble accepting Kerry’s terms anyway. But even if they do accept them, a new negotiation time frame and a prolonged implementation phase will allow Bibi to get back in his comfort zone: finding loopholes in previous understandings and basically playing for time.

While some people in the Israeli center have resumed mulling the idea of a partial (unilateral) withdrawal, one which will maintain an Israeli presence in Jerusalem, the security barrier and on the Jordan Valley, with Netanyahu in office it remains a rather unlikely alternative. Such a move goes against Netanyahu’s nature and political instincts, and I don’t see a coalition that would support unilateralism emerging now the way it did for Sharon in 2005.

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