U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry must be doing something right in his attempts to achieve a framework agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, because he’s got everyone involved acting crazy.
Last week we witnessed a cock fight between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party, over a suggestion made by one of Netanyahu’s advisers at the Davos conference, that Jewish settlers could conceivably find themselves living under Palestinian rule one day. Speaking at a security conference a few days later, Bennett called the idea dangerous and said it reflected a “lack of values”. The situation quickly deteriorated into a crisis in relations between the two, at the end of which Bennett was forced to capitulate and apologize for his transgressions.
As pressure begins to mount, the tensions within the coalition begin to show. Nearing the point where he will need to make a decision on whether to accept or turn down the framework agreement, Netanyahu finds himself in a tight bind. On one side are right-wingers such as Bennett, who will bolt from the ruling coalition if Netanyahu goes down Kerry’s path. Netanyahu also faces rightist elements within his own party who seem to be playing their own game, gaining political points by purposely legislating provocative laws such as MK Regev’s suggestion to make it illegal for an Israeli government to negotiate over Jerusalem’s status. Pressing Netanyahu from the other side is a U.S. administration that appears ready to blame him for sinking negotiations, and a European threat of censure and international isolation, should they fail.
Censure and international isolation pose acute national security threats to Israel. As the writer Ari Shavit says, the issue for Israel is not the quality of its F-15s. The Israeli military is the strongest in the Middle East. The issue, Shavit says, is that the world soon won’t allow those F-15s to take off. Isolation and condemnation will make it increasingly difficult for Israel to defend itself from the most serious threats. If Hamas or Hezbollah choose to launch waves of missiles at Israeli cities again, Israel may very well have to respond with force. But in the current international climate, Israel will find itself handcuffed by international condemnation as soon as videos depicting the first Palestinian or Lebanese casualties are uploaded to YouTube.
This is why Bennett’s outcry to a crowd of Israeli security experts at the security conference last week was met by little enthusiasm. Israeli business and security leaders are vocally expressing their worries from the implications all this will have on Israel’s economy and security should negotiations fail. Renewed violence in the shape of a third Intifada, coupled with American and European sanctions, could destabilize Israel’s economic situation to the extent where its military preparedness and overall security situation will be damaged. Attempts to push aside these threats of economic sanctions, and belittle their potential impact, ignore Israel’s history. War is bad for business.
Netanyahu, unlike the government ministers to his right, including Bennett, understands that Israel’s addiction to West Bank settlements is undermining the legitimacy of his country. He may have even reached the inevitable conclusion that the settlements endanger Israel’s role as a democratic haven for Jews. This is precisely why he has made the political effort to take small steps in Kerry’s direction.
Yes, there are plenty of reasons not to expect any miracles from Kerry and his Herculean efforts. Israel has tried in the past to offer most of what Palestinian negotiators said they wanted, only to see Palestinian interlocutors walk away from negotiations. The Palestinian Authority is weak and corrupt, and does not even control Gaza, which must be part of a Palestinian state in order for any plan to succeed. Yet the framework agreement Kerry is trying to reach could set the stage for negotiations that might just result in unprecedented security guarantees for Israel and Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, in exchange for a gradual Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank.
Ultimately, there are two ways to look at Kerry’s efforts to outline an agreement between the extremely hesitant parties. The first way is to perceive Kerry as the enemy, trying to break the will of Netanyahu to uproot settlers and create a Palestinian state that will become a source of endless violence. The second way is the one favored by those of us belonging to the center and the left: suspicion of grandiose American schemes but also a sober realization that someone needs to figure out a way to disentangle Israel from the lives of its Palestinian neighbors, and that that person may well be Kerry. The problem for Netanyahu, is that both these understandings are fighting it out in his mind, awaiting a final and difficult conclusion. The problem for us Israelis, is that Netanyahu isn’t known for being a very decisive leader.