An ‘Interim’ Peace Deal? Israel’s Netanyahu Tries to Reheat a Souffle

  • Share
  • Read Later

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could be forgiven for feeling just a wee bit lonely, right now. Events in the Middle East are increasingly passing him by, leaving him on the sidelines as the region’s history is being remade. And on Wednesday, one of Israel’s most senior veteran diplomats, Ilan Baruch, resigned from the foreign ministry, saying he could no longer defend his government’s policies towards the Palestinians, which he said were “wrong.” Baruch also had a blunt warning about Israel’s growing international isolation: “Identifying the objection expressed by global public opinion to the occupation policy as anti-Semitic is simplistic, provincial and artificial,” he wrote in a letter to all Foreign Ministry officials. “Experience shows that this global trend won’t change until we normalize our relations with the Palestinians.”

Baruch has a point: By his defiance of President Obama’s efforts to push for a peace agreement that would be minimally acceptable to the Palestinians, Netanyahu has left Israel more diplomatically isolated than it has been in two decades. That much was clear in the U.N. Security Council vote two weeks ago on a resolution demanding a halt to Israeli settlements, in which the U.S. veto left Washington isolated from every one of its allies on the Council. There is, quite simply, no international support, even among Israel’s allies, for the positions taken by Netanyahu on the peace process. When the Israeli leader, never short on chutzpah, called Chancellor Angela Merkel to complain about Germany, Israel’s closest friend in Europe, failing to vote with the U.S. in the Security Council, her office let it be known that she furiously castigated Netanyahu for “disappointing” Israel’s friends by his failure to  advance the peace process.

The Palestinian leadership, meanwhile, has been lining up diplomatic backing for a declaration of independence — which could come as soon as September this year. The Israelis won’t vacate occupied territory just because most of the world had recognized Palestinian sovereignty over it, but it would further erode the legitimacy of Israel’s presence outside its 1967 borders. And the revolutionary tide that has swept across the Arab world has further weakened Israel’s position: Where just over a a month ago, Egypt was still ruled by an often exasperated but ultimately indulgent friend of Israel, its new military regime is more responsive than ever to its own citizenry, and therefore unwilling to indulge Israel’s hostility to Iran, much less help it throttle Hamas or twist the arm of President Mahmoud Abbas to accept a half loaf. Jordan’s monarchy is weaker than ever, and the new assertiveness of the Arab public bodes ill for a peace “process” that had relied on the backing of Arab autocrats.

The U.S. veto demonstrated that the Administration, mindful of the President’s reelection challenge, is not going to abandon Israel even on an issue where Obama agrees with those he is voting against, Netanyahu has given Obama nothing to work with in terms of helping Israel out of the diplomatic cul de sac the Israeli leader has chosen.

Back home, a Prime Minister who just four months ago was riding high in the polls after staring down Obama over a settlement freeze now enjoys the approval of just one in three voters. He’s losing ground on the right to his foreign minister, the hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman, while the center is occupied by Tzipi Livni’s opposition Kadima party, and “Netanyahu is being worn down between them, with no agenda and no hope,” writes Israeli analyst Aluf Benn in Haaretz. “Externally, international pressure is closing him in ever more tightly. ‘The world’ is united in its belief that Israel is clinging to the status quo, and is demanding that it abandon the occupation and the settlements as its contribution to the new regional order. Netanyahu’s warnings that the revolutions in Arab states will strengthen Iran and radical Islam – and that therefore, the wise course is to hunker down and wait – have been either ignored or rejected by a West enthralled by the miracle of ‘Arab democracy’.”

Benn warns that Netanyahu’s main problem now is that he now lacks credibility in the eyes of the Western leaders closest to Israel, much less any others. To have any hope of restoring it, he’d have to make a peace offering to the Palestinians more substantial than any he’s been willing to make until now, but doing so could easily cost him his coalition and his control over government. He’s currently engaged in a few skirmishes with more militant settlers in outposts built without Israeli government approval, but that’s an old routine that risks domestic turmoil without buying him much sympathy abroad, if for no other reason than the international community has seen it all before.

The centerpiece of Netanyahu’s recovery strategy appears to be reheating the souffle of an “interim” peace agreement with the Palestinians. Well, no, not an agreement, because it’s highly unlikely that the Palestinian leadership would agree to what Netanyahu would be willing to offer, but an “arrangement” that could be implemented, the New York Times reports,  “even without Palestinian agreement.”

That’s how the Israelis did their Gaza pullout, after all, and although details are not known and are still being debated, indications are that it would involve some form of recognition of a Palestinian state with “provisional borders”, i.e. the current boundaries — giving the Palestinians “statehood” in around  60% of the West Bank, but keeping all the major settlements and the Jordan Valley, which would effectively mean keeping such a “state” encircled.

But you don’t need to be Julia Childs to know you can’t reheat a souffle.

Besides, such fare has been served up the Palestinians before, and they’ve declined to partake. By taking the demand for Israel to halt settlement construction to the U.N. Security Council over US objections, the Palestinian leadership effectively  declared an end to the peace process as we’ve known it. They may not necessarily have intended the move to be that final, of course, but the winds of change that have swept across the Arab world will leave the Palestinian public in no mood to indulge anything deemed to be capitulation before the Israelis. Indeed, Palestinian leaders, including the West’s favorite, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, spoke last week of forming a unity government with Hamas — a longstanding red line for the Israelis and Washington. Asked whether such a move would imperil peace negotiations, PA spokesman Ghassan Khatib pointed out that the question was moot since there are no negotiations under way.

The Arab rebellion against self-serving autocrats threatens to sweep away the Palestinian authority, too. Even if they wanted to deal on Netanyahu’s restrictive terms — and there’s no reason to believe they are — they couldn’t afford to do so, politically. Instead, the Palestinians are likely to raise the pressure through protests on the ground and diplomatic action on the international front, while the Israelis continue to drift, unable to find traction with either the Palestinians or the international community for their version of a peace agreement.