Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Netanyahu and the Case for Peace Process Optimism

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Update from AIJAC

August 2, 2013
Number 08/13 #01

With new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks under way in Washington after a three year hiaitus - though with very little information coming out of them about what is being discussed - there remain ample grounds for pessimism about their prospects, some of which were highlighted in the Australian recently by AIJAC editorial chairman Dr. Colin Rubenstein.

This Update seeks to round out this picture by canvassing some of the arguments that are being put forward that there are reasons for hope that this time the talks could make significant progress - and focussing especially on the approach to the talks of Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu.

First up is an analysis of Netanyahu's role, written by Raphael Ahren of the Times of Israel, and based on interviews with a number of insiders and political experts. Ahren's find that even former confidantes are not sure what Netanyahu is thinking as he declares that his goal is preventing the creation of a binational state through peace talks. However, several experts believe that, while a full final peace remains a long shot, major steps toward it could be something he could be considering, especially interim arrangements recognising a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank with temporary borders. For the views of the various experts and insiders consulted by Ahren in full, CLICK HERE

Next up, noted Israeli academic Prof. Gerald Steinberg explores Netanyahu's likely motives - using the controversial and unpopular decision to release 104 convicted terrorists to get the Palestinian side to agree to talks as a starting point (Netanyahu's own explanation for the decision to the people of Israel is here .) Steinberg explains the decision as a rational one in terms of maintaining US support against Iran, and in an unstable region, and also maintaining security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, and also heading off Palestinian attempts to resort to "lawfare" at international bodies. While Steinberg is sceptical Israeli-Palestinian talks will lead to a breakthrough, he does attempt to explain the Israeli strategic interests, beyond peace with the Palestinians, that may be on Netanyahu's mind. For Steinberg's complete argument, CLICK HERE. Steinberg may have been reacting in part to a piece by Barry Rubin , who argued that they was no case for the prisoner release in terms of Israeli interests. Agreeing with Steinberg that there is one is noted Israeli security columnist Ron Ben Yishai  .

<#Article_3> Finally, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz canvasses the seven reasons that the US Administration believes that this round of talks could be different than past stalemates. These includes Secretary of State Kerry's strong relations with the leaders on both sides, the tough decisions both sides were already prepared to make to get the talks under way, the agreement to talk for at least nine months, and that regional changes may be softening the positions of both sides. Interestingly, Horovitz reports that, though they avoid mentioning it, US diplomats do privately have a plan B involving an interim option - of the sort discussed in the Ahren article - up their sleeves as a fallback. For important insights into the thinking in Washington behind these talks, CLICK HERE More argument for optimism comes from British scholar Toby Greene  but noted America journalist Jeffrey Goldberg  offers seven reasons he thinks peace hopes are delusional.

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Can Netanyahu go all the way in peace talks? And does it matter?

Conventional wisdom says the gaps are too wide, but analysts believe the PM is ready for a demilitarized ‘Palestine,' or an interim deal. And if all that fails, he's hoping to prevail in the blame game

By Raphael Ahren

Times of Israel, July 29, 2013, 12:19 pm

There is ample reason to believe that the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, getting underway Monday in Washington, will end in failure, well before the nine months slated for them are up.

But analysts say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence on going into talks and seeking to reach a deal, bluff or not, may well leave Israel in a commanding position if the negotiations do indeed fail.

Conventional wisdom says that the "direct final status negotiations," as they are referred to by the US State Department, are doomed to fall apart because the maximum Netanyahu can offer is far less than Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can accept.

However, Netanyahu has taken significant, and what he has painted as personally painful, steps to resume the peace process with the Palestinians. On Sunday, he pushed the release of 104 Palestinian terrorists through a dramatic cabinet meeting.

"This is an incomparably difficult decision; it is painful for the bereaved families and it is painful for the entire nation and it is also very painful for me," he wrote in a letter to the Israeli public published before the meeting Saturday.

He also insisted on advancing a new Basic Law that stipulates that any peace agreement would have to be confirmed by a public referendum, a move clearly intended to protect his right flank in case the negotiations actually do succeed.

All of this might indicate that Netanyahu has come around, and seeks to end the conflict by creating a Palestinian state. But does he really mean it when he says his goal is preventing the creation of a binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, as he vowed last week? Does he really believe that he will be able to reach an agreement, fully aware that his positions (no return to 1967 lines, no division of Jerusalem, no right of return) are unacceptable to the other side?

As his personal envoy Yitzhak Molcho and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni make their way to Washington, Netanyahu's true intentions regarding the upcoming negotiations remain shrouded in mystery. Even some of his confidants dare not guess what is really going on in his heart of hearts.

"There are moments in which I wake up and think that Netanyahu means to go all the way to a two-state solution. And there are mornings when I wake up and I think that Netanyahu is bluffing the whole world. And I suspect exactly the same thing happens to Netanyahu himself," said Dani Dayan, the chief foreign envoy of the pro-settler Yesha Council.

"He still holds all the cards and he hasn't decided yet how to distribute them, to go all the way or not. He maneuvers and everyone thinks he already made a strategic decision and now he's implementing it. I think he will make the strategic decisions when he's further into the process. Until then, he will keep all options open."

Well-placed officials, even those close to Netanyahu and with experience in peace negotiations, said their guess about Israel's negotiation goal or strategy was as good as anyone's. "I got nothing I can share right now, maybe it'll be clearer in a couple of days," one Netanyahu protégé said. "I have no idea what's happening there," sighed a former official involved in previous peace talks.

According to Uzi Arad, a professor of government at Herzliya's Interdisciplinary Center and Netanyahu's former national security adviser, there is no reason to doubt that Netanyahu was sincere in his famous Bar-Ilan speech. "If the Palestinian were to address the Israelis' concerns, then of course Netanyahu could conceive the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people," he said.

Yoaz Hendel, who headed the Public Diplomacy Directorate at the Prime Minister's Office from 2011 until 2012, also believes that Netanyahu is genuinely interested in preventing "the creation of a binational state," as the prime minister declared repeatedly in recent weeks.

"Four years ago, Netanyahu was standing at the podium at Bar-Ilan University and became the first leader of the right wing who recognized the Palestinians' right to have their own state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean," said Hendel, who now heads the Institute of Zionist Strategy. "He crossed the Rubicon and afterward even agreed to a settlement freeze. He's done it before - it wouldn't be the first time he has done things that he used to be completely against."

While everyone with two feet on the ground knows that a full-fledged peace agreement and an end of the conflict currently isn't attainable - as the gaps on questions of borders, Jerusalem and refugees are too wide - Netanyahu might think about an interim solution, Hendel said.

The areas in the West Bank autonomously ruled by the PA - Areas A and B - are "already a kind of a state" and Netanyahu theoretically could agree to a Palestinian state in provisional borders there, he added, and international consensus sees Israel annexing the major settlement blocs under any agreement. The real problem is what to do with the rest of Area C, where some 100,000 Jewish settlers live. "I cannot see any scenario in which Netanyahu evacuates those people, just to gamble on a peace agreement that no one can guarantee will survive," Hendel said.

What would Netanyahu ask in return for the recognition of a Palestinian state in Areas A, B and perhaps small parts of C? Hendel says he's not sure what his former boss aims for, but he suggests annexing the settlement blocs. "Just think about the fact that he will be able to build in Efrat, Maaleh Adumim and Ariel. It would be a huge achievement," Hendel said.

The idea of partial agreements is also popular with other Mideast analysts. "In the Middle East, I feel that whenever it's all or nothing, it's always nothing," said David Makovsky, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's project on the peace process. "If they try to do it all, they may fail. But if they try to settle for less and don't overreach, they may achieve things."

According to a prominent leader of Israel's right wing, who asked to remain anonymous, Netanyahu is approaching the peace talks with two possibilities in mind. Firstly, if the unthinkable happens and the two sides reach an agreement, he will enter the history books as the man who brought peace to the Middle East, even if it means a withdrawal from much territory and a division of Jerusalem, he added.

"But his working assumption is that this will not happen and that the Palestinians, as always, will cause the negotiations to collapse," the source said. "In this case, he expects to play up the blame game. In such a scenario, Netanyahu hopes for a period of quiet from the American administration."

It's a win-win strategy for Netanyahu: "If the negotiations miraculously succeed, it's a win for him. If the negotiations fail, it's also a win for him because he believes the Americans will blame the Palestinians," the source said.

Netanyahu thinks ahead, this source said. By pushing through the release of the Palestinian prisoners, he created the image of a strong leader willing to antagonize his people and his government for the sake of peace. "We made painful concessions even before the talks started. It's the Palestinians who aren't ready for peace," he may argue nine months from now, turning a diplomatic stillbirth into a child who did no wrong.

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Netanyahu's peace strategy as a rational choice

In the past four years, the widely repeated image of a narrow ideological warrior has been exposed as highly inaccurate.

By GERALD M. STEINBERG

Jerusalem Post, 07/29/2013 23:14

The readiness of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to free scores of terrorists in order to meet Palestinian demands for the reopening of peace negotiations has fueled broad speculations on his motives. Some instant analysts have pushed simplistic psychological theories, and others see dark conspiracies, but given Netanyahu's history in both his first and second terms, a carefully formed, rational and strategic political explanation is more likely.

In the past four years, the widely repeated image of a narrow ideological warrior has been exposed as highly inaccurate.

In his July 27 letter to the Israeli public asking for support and understanding, the prime minister wrote that this difficult decision was necessary for "the good of the country" - a term he left undefined. But it is not hard to guess his calculus.

This "good" certainly includes maintaining the close cooperation of the United States, whose president and secretary of state clearly give high priority to a negotiation process - which they see as a key American interest. As Egypt, Syria and the rest of the region become even less stable, close Israeli- American cooperation is vital.

In addition to this already complex menu, Netanyahu must add the threat posed by Iran's ongoing nuclear weapons program, which the US is best placed to halt, particularly if military action is necessary in the next few months. On the list of Israel's strategic priorities, dealing with Iran is clearly at the top, and if the price is the release of terrorists in order to start negotiations with the Palestinians, this is clearly a rational choice.

The prime minister is gambling that Obama and Kerry will understand the pain and appreciate Israel's willingness to release terrorists in order to help Washington in the region.

In addition, there are important Israeli interests stemming from the talks themselves, beginning with assessments by military commanders on the ground that without this "political horizon," the level of Palestinian violence and attacks against Israelis will escalate rapidly. They argue that the relative quiet that has prevailed in the Judea and Samaria regions of the West Bank in recent years is not sustainable, and point to the steady increase in attacks in recent months.

The evidence suggests that cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces has played a significant role in this calm, and in order to maintain these links, talks and agreements that move toward a two-state framework are necessary. In contrast, another round of sustained violence will be costly for Israelis and will add to the regional chaos.

With the agreement on negotiations, the Palestinian Authority pledged to suspend its intense campaigns of demonization and political warfare against Israel in the United Nations, the International Criminal Court and other venues for a period of nine months. Netanyahu can be criticized for over-emphasizing this issue and attributing too much influence to the PA's role, particularly as these campaigns will continue through the network of European-funded non-government organizations (NGOs) that act as proxies. But this factor is part of the overall assessment of costs and benefits.

Based on these dimensions, Netanyahu's decision to release terrorists in order to open talks can be readily explained on the basis of rational cost-benefit calculations and Israel's core interests. But the game is far from over with the opening round in Washington, and decision makers must also consider the scenarios and stages that are likely to follow. There are good reasons to conclude that the talks will break down as expectations on borders, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugee claims again prove irreconcilable.

Perhaps Netanyahu has some concrete assurances that if the Palestinian leadership again follows Arafat's playbook by rejecting all reasonable proposals and compromises, the US will push through international acceptance of borders and other terms that provide long-term security for Israel. Or perhaps the nine months allocated for the first stage are enough to gain the strategic objectives in Iran and Syria, and to limit factors promoting Palestinian violence.

None of these explanations mitigates the pain and moral objections to yet another release of inhuman terrorists who will be greeted as heroes by the Palestinian population. And Netanyahu's calculus on these complex issues may prove to be wrong - a rational approach is no guarantee of success and the record shows that betting on the US to follow through is risky. On the other hand, if this and subsequent moves helps to achieve vital Israeli strategic objectives, the prime minister will have done his job.

The writer is a professor of politics at Bar-Ilan University and heads NGO Monitor.

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7 reasons the Americans think this time will be different

Undeterred by widespread Israeli and Palestinian skepticism, John Kerry is convinced he can broker a permanent accord. What does he know that we don't?

By David Horovitz

Times of Israel, July 30, 2013, 5:46 pm

While the resumption of peace talks has been greeted with considerably more apathy, pessimism and outright hostility than optimism among Israelis and Palestinians, the American mediators are broadcasting an insistent confidence that things have changed and past failures might yet be overcome.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, the six-times-this-year visitor to the region to whom Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas ultimately could not say no, has been stressing that "this is a difficult process" and "many difficult choices lie ahead." But, as Kerry said Tuesday at the media conference summing up the first two days of contacts, he is convinced that "we can get there." Plainly, he wouldn't have invested all that personal effort if he didn't think there was a realistic prospect that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders would make the "reasonable compromises" he says are needed "on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues."

The next few months will determine if the skeptics - notably including veteran pundits who have seen so many such US-led peace bids crash and burn - have got it wrong this time, and the Kerry-led peace team has got it right. Here are 7 reasons the Americans, if very few others, believe this time could be different.

1. President Barack Obama's visit to the region is seen by the US peace team as the starting point of a potential sea change. Israelis were won over emotionally within minutes of Obama's arrival at Ben Gurion Airport. He stressed the Jews' attachment to this land, he took off his jacket, he went strolling around the airport in his shirtsleeves with "my friend Bibi," and we were his. But the president is convinced that his trip had a substantive impact too, on Israelis, Palestinians and their leaders, impressing upon them the imperative to try to solve the conflict, and providing the assurance that his administration was committed to helping them do so.

2. Since then, Kerry has taken up the baton, and believes that he has built relationships of trust with Netanyahu and Abbas, convinced them of his investment in the peace effort, and gradually managed to create a more positive climate for progress. His efforts to minimize leaks have been a factor in the parties' growing faith in him, the Americans believe. It's an effort he's intent on maintaining, so that private negotiations remain private - and trade-offs and compromises can be explored out of the media spotlight, without consequent public pressure - unless or until a deal is done. The appointment of Martin Indyk as the talks' coordinator, they are confident, too, brings an experienced, trusted mediator into the mix. Indyk will be the hands-on player, possibly basing himself in the region as the talks move into higher gear. Kerry will be deeply involved, but has the rest of the world to worry about, and will not attend every session of negotiations.

3. Getting the sides to the table should have been relatively easy, and plainly wasn't. Yet while critics highlight the fact that it took Kerry six trips to drag everybody off to Washington, the Americans prefer to highlight what they see as the tough decisions taken to get there. For Netanyahu, the wrenching agreement to the phased release of pre-Oslo prisoners; for Abbas, the climbdown on precondition demands for a settlement freeze and an Israeli acceptance of the pre-'67 lines as the basis for negotiating the borders of a Palestinian state. Maybe each leader only said yes to prevent the other from winning the blame game over a Kerry failure? Maybe, but that's not the way the Americans see it.

4. Unlike 2010, the last time the US managed to pull Israel and the Palestinians into the same room, there's now a potentially lengthy period for the sides to negotiate. Three years ago, Abbas only came back to the table at the very end of Netanyahu's 10-month settlement freeze, and the resumed talks were over almost as soon as they had begun. Now, they've committed to nine months of negotiation, and there's more time if they need it, though Kerry believes nine months will be enough if there is a genuine readiness for viable compromise.

5. Both sides have committed to seriously discuss "all of the core issues," as Kerry confirmed on Tuesday, and to do so early in the talks. Netanyahu may want Tzipi Livni to focus first on security; Abbas may want Saeb Erekat to initially concentrate on borders. But all issues are on the table from the get-go - including Jerusalem. The Americans know how wide the gaps are between the two sides. For instance, Netanyahu lectured Obama in the Oval Office, in public, two years ago about the impossibility of a return to the pre-1967 lines; but a return to those lines, with very minor adjustments, is precisely what Abbas is insisting upon. And yet, the Americans are convinced that, with growing trust, the necessary trade-offs can be made. Kerry did not engage in substantive back-and-forth negotiations on core issues during his half-a-dozen recent visits here. His focus was the back-and-forth on getting the sides to the table. But he knows the Israeli and Palestinian positions on the core issues, and believes both that reasonable compromises exist, and that the respective leaderships are capable of reaching them.

6. The Americans do not regard Abbas's failure to seize Ehud Olmert's 2008 offer to Abbas - which included a full withdrawal from the West Bank with one-for-one land swaps to encompass major settlement blocs, the division of Jerusalem into sovereign Israeli and Palestinian areas, and the relinquishing of Israeli sovereignty in favor of a non-sovereign trusteeship in the Holy Basin - as proof of Abbas's ultimate intransigence. They believe both Abbas and Netanyahu have been impacted by the passage of time, by the new regional environment, by a shared concern at the conflict moving into a zone in which it becomes unresolvable. It's not entirely clear why or how they believe these factors might soften the sides' positions and lead them to take decisions they would not previously have taken. Regional instability is unlikely to push Netanyahu toward a greater readiness for territorial compromise, for instance, though the desire for greater concerted pressure on Iran might. But believe they do. Unlike the Olmert offer, sprung on Abbas on a "take it or leave it" basis by a prime minister soon to leave office, any deal this time would be arrived at gradually, through mutual trade-off and compromise.

7. The goal is emphatically to reach a final status, end-of-conflict accord. But the Americans are adamant that they do have fall-back positions. As underlined by the eruption of the Second Intifada in late 2000 - the Arafat-inspired strategic onslaught of suicide bombings - following the failure of the Camp David peace effort hosted by president Clinton, the Kerry team knows it would be irresponsible to shoot for the moon without a Plan B alternative landing place in the stars. Some kind of interim accord? Well, possibly. But to discuss it in any detail would be to undermine that effort at the real deal - an effort they are cautiously optimistic, this time, will pay off.

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011).

 

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