A ‘Dramatic Turnabout’ by Netanyahu on Peace Terms? Not Quite

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Palestinians walk next to a section of the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on July 8, 2011. (Photo: Luay Sababa / Xinhua / Zuma)

With tens of thousands of young protestors on his streets in a social justice movement sparked by a housing crisis, some Israeli commentators have suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s best hope for quelling a domestic “rebellion” lies in changing the subject to the question of peace with the Palestinians. But that’s not why Netanyahu, according to  Israeli reports, is trying to signal a new flexibility on the formula to restart peace.

Netanyahu more likely is thinking about the protests called by the Palestinian Authority for September 20, the eve of a U.N. General Assembly vote which would by an overwhelming majority recognize Palestinian statehood (although with no practical effect if the move isn’t endorsed by the Security Council, where the U.S. has vowed to veto it). Concerned to avoid the U.N. community codifying the international consensus on the terms of a two-state solution — which Israel’s government doesn’t accept — the Obama Administration has launched a frantic effort to head off the Palestinian U.N. bid by restarting negotiations which have failed because the gulf between the sides is too large. And Netanyahu seems to be moving to do his bit by signaling what he hopes will be viewed as a new flexibility.

An Israeli TV news report on Monday claimed that “in a dramatic policy shift”, Netanyahu was now willing to negotiate on the basis of Israel’s 1967 borders with agreed territorial swaps. The Israeli Prime Minister had rejected that starting point for talks when it was reiterated (it’s always been the basis of two-state negotiations until now) by President Barack Obama in a policy speech in May, some media interpreted the signals as a major shift by Netanyahu.

But the Israeli Prime Minister’s own aides quickly rushed to assure Israeli media that Netanyahu maintains his rejection of withdrawal to the 1967 lines, and instead plans to negotiate on the basis of a “border package” that includes territorial swaps. Such a position would be in line with the Obama Administration’s own efforts to broker a new round of talks by repackaging Israeli terms as answering Palestinian and European demands in an exercise branded as “sophistry” by Daniel Levy, former Israeli peace negotiator now at the New America Foundation.

The new American proposals have been “precooked with the Israeli leadership”, says Levy, and tilt the U.S. position heavily towards Israel’s own demands. Thus, while negotiating the basis of the June 4, 1967 borders, the parties would in fact be required to negotiate a border different to those that existed before that date “to take account of changes that have taken place over the past 44 years, including new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.”

That language, which Levy reports was in a draft document that the U.S. tried and failed to press the Quartet to adopt during its recent Washington meeting, makes reference to the language of President George W. Bush’s letter to Ariel Sharon, in which he aligned the U.S. with Israel’s demand to keep the major settlement blocs established in the West Bank. But that letter has no standing in the international community, which sees those “demographic realities” — i.e. the settlement of close to half a million Israelis on land captured by Israel in the war of 1967 — as having been created in violation of international law.

(Needless to say, it’s obvious why an Israeli government beholden to the settlement movement would prefer the U.S. terms, but equally obvious why the Palestinians might incline to go with the international consensus — the latter establishing the West Bank land on which those settlements are built as being the Palestinians’ to trade in exchange for other concessions, rather than Israel’s to begin with.)

Levy also reports that the U.S. text would require the Palestinians to recognize Israel “as a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people“. That demand, embraced by the U.S. at the behest of Netanyahu, is also unlikely to be accepted by the Palestinians, who see it simply as code for taking the rights of Palestinian refugees (whose return would weaken Israel’s ethnically Jewish majority) off the negotiating table.

The U.S. also sought Quartet endorsement of a statement that precluded U.N. action as a route to Palestinian statehood. And there’s no mention in the U.S. position of the settlement freeze demanded by the Palestinian leadership — it had originally been demanded by the Obama Administration, too, but was discreetly dropped from the agenda after Netanyahu forced Obama to back down. But having constantly reiterated that demand throughout the past two years, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will not easily be able to simply drop the matter.

So the new Israeli position, while tweaked to appear to be more in line with what the Obama Administration has been asking, may not be all that new, after all. Nor is it one that makes it any easier for Abbas to accept, unless he’s essentially looking for an off-ramp from a confrontational diplomatic strategy that threatens his ties with Washington — which may well be the case.

If not, and the U.N. vote goes ahead, Netanyahu’s latest position will simply have been an attempt to shift the blame for intransigence back onto the Palestinians. Netanyahu and Abbas, it should be noted, have never really negotiated with one another; instead, both “negotiate”, or jockey for position, with the U.S. and the wider international community. And Netanyahu’s new willingness to talk about borders, but only on his terms and if the Palestinians withdraw their U.N. bid,  is simply his latest move in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian battle for international public opinion.