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Nahum Barnea  

 

Netanyahu's headache

Op-ed: As US-brokered negotiations approach their home stretch, prime minister faces a crucial decision

Published: 12.30.13, 20:22 / Israel Opinion

The negotiations brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry are approaching their home stretch: Kerry will arrive in the region this week with the hopes of getting positive responses to the draft framework agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The agreement, if achieved, is aimed at leading the two sides towards one solution: Peace and a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

 

 

So many "ifs," "maybes" and "howevers" lie ahead of the agreement, so many contradictions and flickers and mutual sabotages, that the street both in Israel and in the West Bank has ceased to show an interest in it. There is no audience, but there is drama. And the drama is big even if this move ends with failure.

 

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The Americans are convinced that Netanyahu has come down from the stand to the field and is in the game. Using an expression from the field of baseball – their favorite sport – he is located between bases: Too late to go back, too early to determine if he will reach the home base. In less sportive terms, the chance that he will go for an agreement is 50%, more or less.

 

There is no wonder that the prime minister is suffering from headaches these days. There is no wonder that his sinuses are restless. He is facing a crucial decision.

 

Netanyahu's colleagues in the government and Knesset usually interpret him differently: He is just trying to play for time, they say. Or: He is only interested in tomorrow's headlines. And: He is not playing the agreement game, but the blame game. In other words, his only goal is to shake the responsibility for the failure off his shoulders.

 

But it's possible, just possible, that the Israelis are too skeptic, too cynical, lacking faith. Maybe they – we – are wrong about Netanyahu.

 

Let's start with the blame game, which is so much talked about. I'm afraid that Israel has already lost this game. The recent days' statements about new construction plans in the settlements have already fixed the blame on Israel in the world's eyes. No one understands the logic of these statements: Neither the bereaved families, who don’t see West Bank construction plans as a source of comfort following the release of their loved ones' murderers, nor Israel's Right, which doesn't believe that Netanyahu intends on implementing the plans, or Israelis in the Center and Left, who don't believe why we had to be punished twice – both with the release of murderers and with further damage to the negotiations.

 

The world response is even harsher. The murderers' release was aimed at bolstering Abbas and the camp of agreement supporters in the West Bank. The construction declarations only bolster Hamas. And most importantly, they present Israel as deliberately sabotaging the chance to reach an agreement. "The Israelis are trying to calm us down by saying these are only plans for the future," says a foreign diplomat. "But there's the rub: If your plan is to build in all these places in the future, what are you negotiating for?"

 

The same applies to the decision made Sunday by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation to adopt a bill to annex the Jordan Valley. The idea was initiated by Knesset Member Miri Regev, and it is being pushed in the government by Minister Gideon Sa'ar. They are both slaves of extreme Likud members, in clear contradiction of the State's interests and needs. Netanyahu let the proposal evolve. He was afraid to be seen as too moderate on a week in which he is releasing murderers. In the next stage, in the government vote, he'll make sure to thwart it, but the damage has already been done.

 

Decision requires courage

Netanyahu knows that he has already lost the blame game. If he still wants to play in the international court and maintain his status in the center of his coalition and within the central stream of the public opinion, he is left with only one game – the agreement game.

 

The framework agreement will say that Israel will hand over to the Palestinians a territory amounting in size to the territory Jordan lost in the West Bank in the Six-Day War. What percentage of the territory of Jerusalem and the West Bank will be exchanged? The Palestinians are talking about half a percent, but understand that it's much more. Senior Israeli government officials are talking about 10%. They want to annex Ariel and its affiliates and Ma'ale Adumim, connect all the settlements in the western part of the West Bank and in the Jerusalem area to Israel, and annex the roads leading to them.

 

Ten percent are 600 square meters (6,450 square feet) – more than the Jezreel Valley area. It will be very difficult to find alternative lands in Israel amounting to this area, unless Israeli citizens are forced to vacate their homes within the Green Line in order to allow settlers to stay in the West Bank. One of the ideas is moving Wadi Ara to Palestine. The Palestinians are ruling it out completely. They understand the feelings of their brothers, Israel's Arab citizens: For them it's convenient being Palestinians in Israel, not in Palestine. Apart from that, they are insisting on their right to receive empty territories. In a nutshell, land exchanges are a short and cruel blanket: If it covers one's feet, the head will be cold. If it covers one's head, the feet will be cold.

 

All this shows that the decision to agree to a withdrawal to the 1967 lines with a land exchange - even a decision which is left on paper for now – is not a simple move. It requires courage and readiness to deal with strong political opposition, perhaps even violent. The government may be dissolved, the Likud may split. On the other hand, the majority of the Knesset, possibly even the majority of the public, will support the move. And the world of course. Netanyahu will be able to earn his place in the world, maybe even in the history of the Jewish people, as a great statesman, as a leader.

 

And this is faced by the price of not making the decision: A UN recognition of a Palestinian state, an Israel boycott in the international community, diplomatic isolation, an economic crisis. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, as we know him, it's a choice between a plague and cholera. But we may not know him well enough.

 

Five of his predecessors – Begin, Rabin, Barak, Sharon and Olmert – faced a similar dilemma and chose the diplomatic, dovish alternative: Begin with Egypt, Rabin in Oslo, Sharon in the disengagement, Barak and Olmert in far-reaching proposals to the Palestinian partner. Their withdrawal from territories was not done joyfully or because they fell in love with the Arab neighbor. It was done out of a recognition that the State of Israel's interest does not start and end with land.

 

At this stage, the decision is only Netanyahu's to make. He can follow in their footsteps or follow the blind, arrogant, righteous way of Golda Meir, which ended, unfortunately, with the Yom Kippur disaster.

 

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