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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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    1. Richard Witty

      What does Netanyahu want?

      I don’t think he wants anything. At this point, he is no longer a leader, capable of changing others’ minds or motivating action.

      I think he is very passive, very much “leading from behind” if at all.

      As you noted yesterday I think, his coalition is really only very conditionally behind him, and are still genuinely more committed to your description of greater Israel (eventually), than I think he is at this point.

      I think he would be close to a Sharon (breaking from likud), if he had followers in fact.

      And, to put a twist on that status, he uses it publicly, certainly in relations with Kerry. “I really don’t have the latitude to change Israeli policy. We are not a dictatorship you know”. (Its not a quote of anything, my imagination of conversation.)

      And, the bottom line is the Israeli electorate. It is so split, that there is no majority anywhere.

      BUT, a big but, the shift of even a few seats in the knesset makes a very big deal in the tenor of Israeli governance.

      Kadima could house an Olmert that could proceed to developing very good negotiating relationship with Abbas.

      Likud could not. Kadima or equivalent could not house a Netanyahu.

      It is THAT important that progressives work in the electoral sphere, even if only to construct the third leg (not sole leg) of a stool.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Bibi doesn’t have followers. He has temporary allies. They would throw him under the bus, as he would them. Bibi, outside the Likud, doesn’t have the electoral clout to shift the political spectrum and certainly not enough to remain PM after elections. This is even if he would ever dare to take such a risky move. But he wouldn’t.

        “Progressives” in Israel, at least as they are usually defined in the context of this site, can work in the electoral sphere all they want. In general they are so far outside the national consensus as to have minimal impact. If anything if they try to play more prominent roles in major parties they would only damage them electorally. For example, I think the presence of Meirav Michaeli in Labor costs Labor multiple seats, while supporters of Michaeli are themselves voting for other parties. In practice, “progressives” are too busy in fratricidal wars between Hadash, Meretz and smaller outfits like Da’am. They are so busy in these wars that they fail to realize that they are competing for the same 7 or 8 seats while their electoral base keeps shrinking relative to the overall population. They are also too busy in their fratricidal wars to calibrate a message that might appeal to the mainstream.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Joel

      If I was the Chairman of the P.A., I’d try to get the maximum concessions from Israel, and than sign a peace treaty. After gaining independence for Palestine, as Chairman, I’d quietly start infiltration and agitation of Israel’s Palestinian minority, demanding ‘equal rights’, etc.

      Call it, Phase 3 for the planned destruction of Israel.

      I have a hunch that Bibi’s demand for recognition of a Jewish State is an attempt to try to prevent or forestall Phase 3.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Rehmat

      I hope someday, a good shrink could find out what Bibi wants. In the past, Moshe Yaton failed to find out Bibi’s chronic problem with Palestinians, Iranians, Iraqis and Syrians.

      If someone in Israel is really interested to save Jews from Bibi’s suicidal policies – I would highly recommend the services of Dr. Eyad Al Sarraj, winner of Sweden’s 2010 Olof Palme Prize in recognition of his “self-sacrificing and defatigable struggle for common sense, reconciliation and peace in the Middle East”.


      Reply to Comment
    4. Sol

      What does Bibi want?

      All of the West Bank.
      All of the Gaza Strip.
      All of the Golan Heights.
      The Palestinians erased from the face of the planet.
      And a loyal, if not well paid, security detail to protect him and his family from Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett, Danny Danon, Price Tag, and the Kahane Loyalists.

      That’s easy.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Richard Lightbown

      “Except for one short Gaza campaign, he has never launched a military operation or war.”

      Well yeah, but we have only saner heads to thank for that. Netanyahu would still attack Iran if he could. And that would probably be far worse than any other war that Israel has initiated to date.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Average American

      The long-term play-for-time plan for “Greater Israel” and “The Land of Israel” does not stop at the Jordan River. The “Greater Israel” of Israel’s founders includes Cyprus, all of Lebanon, all of Syria, all of Jordan, half of Iraq (to the Euphrates) and Sinai (to the River of Egypt. It’s a long-term domination plan for Jewish benefit only. Or Zionist benefit only. That’s what Bibi and every Israeli prime minister since it’s inception wants. While USA citizens are fed bullshit that The Jews somehow Deserve that land.

      Reply to Comment
    7. The Trespasser

      >Netanyahu would still attack Iran if he could.

      Strictly between us, Netaniyahu would grow a long arm to reach Russian gold mine and grab some gold nuggets, if he could. Or, even better, he would grab his wife and throw her onto sun.

      He told me that personally. Make sure you keep it a secret.

      Reply to Comment
    8. The longest-lasting leader of the Ulster Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, James Molyneaux, endured in office for 16 years as party leader by strenuously avoiding any initiative to solve the conflict with the nationalists in general and the Irish Republican Army in particular. When London and Dublin finally got a serious peace process going in the mid-1990s, he resigned from the party leadership rather than risk the wrath of unionists by having to compromise. His successor, David Trimble, negotiated a peace agreement with the moderate nationalist party in April 1998 that resulted in power sharing with both constitutional nationalists and Republicans in power. But the IRA refused to give up their arms according to the agreement’s timetable and Trimble finally withdrew from government after less than three years in October 2002. He lasted as party leader for a decade and received the Nobel Peace Prize. After the IRA finally gave up most of their arms in September 2005–five years behind schedule–Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley entered into power sharing with the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, in May 2007. Paisley negotiated cosmetic changes to the Good Friday Agreement in October 2006. This means that Netanyahu can make peace–provided that someone else takes all the risks and does all the heavy lifting first.

      Reply to Comment

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