Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni emerged from the weekly cabinet meeting on Monday satisfied – as satisfied as it is possible for ministers to be in Israel. The cabinet discussed the new unity government formed by Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas in partnership with Hamas. The debate had been long and difficult.
The right-wing ministers pulled to the right, while the left-wing ministers pulled to the left. The decision that was taken resulted in five clauses that sought to say many things but took care to not actually say anything. Israel will continue, the decision said, in its position of not negotiating with Abbas; continue to speak against him in meetings with world leaders; continue to view him as responsible for every attack emanating from the West Bank and Gaza.
Livni, who met with Abbas without notifying Netanyahu beforehand, maintains her right to conduct the meeting. Lapid wanted to meet with the finance minister of the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu has come to terms with the situation. One cloud hangs over the Israeli response – economic sanctions on the Authority.
In the event that the Authority is financially penalized, it may come knocking on our door; alternatively, it may put Israel under economic pressure from Western countries. The decision taken during the cabinet meeting, to "empower the prime minister to impose sanctions", exempted the Palestinians from punishment. Some interpreted the decision, or rather, the lack of decision, as a win for the moderates.
The truth is that it is not the moderates who have conquered the radicals, but rather what have been conquered are Netanyahu's fears. It can be said, to his credit, that he is afraid. Netanyahu attacks the government formed by Abbas on a daily basis, in every possible arena, but at the same time he halts every move that could jeopardize its existence.
IDF officers give urgent explanations to PA leaders and commanders that meanwhile, everything is fine. Abbas understands this as well. In his speeches, he attacks Israel as though we're at war, and continues to cooperate with as though we have peace.
"The response is very weak," said one of the right-wing ministers after the cabinet discussion. "The government is acting (towards the Palestinians) as if it's walking on eggshells. Where is its daring nature?"
Heads of states who took calls from Netanyahu earlier this week listened patiently to his reproachful words, and proceed to act as though they couldn't care less. They all chose to cooperate with the new Palestinian government. They know that Israeli demands from them what it does not demand of itself. Imagine Angela Merkel or Francois Hollande being persauded by Netanyahu's arguments, and immediately halting the generous aid they give the Palestinian Authority? The Israeli government wouldn't be able to handle the blow.
I feel sorry for the heads of the Israel lobby in Washington. Soon they will have to stand against a group of Congress members and Republicans, who will demand the enforcement of the law forbidding assistance to a government backed by Hamas. How will they explain to them that it's better to wait? How will they explain the massive gulf that has been created between Israel's publicly stated policies and its policies in practice?
The situation reminds me of a nice story I once told (I apologize in advance for recycling my material). The late Simcha Dinitz was our ambassador in Washington during a time of political upheaval in Israel. He accompanied then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin for a meeting with then-President Jimmy Carter. Begin opened the meeting with a long speech. Carter paused, and then, as customary for him, hurled harsh, cruel words at him. When they stepped out, Begin asked Dinitz how he thought the meeting went.
"How would you sum it up?" Dinitz asked. "The meeting was very good," Begin replied. "Why would you say that?" Dinitz asked in surprise. "Because," said Begin, "we got the opportunity to express our views."
Netanyahu is curt from the same cloth. Give him a chance to voice his opinions, and he is satisfied.
Appropriate Zionist response
In the past, when the Palestinians did something to harm Israel, the Israeli government would decide on what it termed "an appropriate Zionist response". Usually, it would proceed to announce new settlement construction. The subject was missing from the decision reached on Monday. Livni and Lapid can interpret this as a victory.
But on Thursday, Housing Minister Uri Ariel announced building tenders for 1,500 housing units - 400 in East Jerusalem and the rest in the West Bank. "You got what you wished for," I told Bayit Hayehudi's Ayelet Shaked yesterday. She didn't think so. "It's a disgrace they only approved 1,500," she told me. "They should have announced 3,000."
During Monday's cabinet meeting, Bennett asked for Israeli sovereignty to be applied over the Gush Etzion settlements. Likud Minister Gilad Erdan backed the suggestion. Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said that he does not rule out the proposal, but suggests waiting for a harsher move from the Palestinian side. Netanyahu understood that he had to give the right-wing something. He agreed to establish a ministerial team headed by himself, that will "examine the course of action in the face of the reality that has been created." Bennet was pleased - decisions to found ministerial teams usually end up in the trashcan.
Netanyahu is convinced that if he isn't punishing the Palestinians, he must compensate the settlers' lobby. His survival depends on this balance. For a year and a half, Netanyahu has delayed the cabinet debate on the recommendations of the the Shamgar Commission that limit the government's freedom of action in the case of future kidnapping scenarios of soldiers. The Shalit deal was nothing but good for Netanyahu. He wasn't quick to give up on that power. But this week, he agreed to raise the issue in the cabinet.
Shaked believes that Netanyahu's decision stems from the fact that Naftali Bennett slammed the prime minister for postponing the approval of a different bill – a bill that she and David Tzur of Livni's Hatnuah party stand behind. This bill allows a judge to sentence a defendant who is found guilty in cases of particularly heinous murders to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Shaked was envisioning the murderers of the Fogel family in Itamar, but she was also thinking of the murderers of 4-year-old Rose Pizam.
Before the calamity
The vacuum created by the end of the peace talks earlier this year is waiting to be filled. Bennett suggests the staggered annexation of the West Bank territories. The first area he chose is Gush Etzion. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog devised a plan of his own, that includes principles for a permanent agreement and a course of action over an interim period. He terms it "the plan to save Zionism".
The principles are fairly predictable. The final borders will be determined based on the 1967 lines, with territorial exchanges; the Palestinian state will be demilitarized; the IDF will remain for a period of time in the Jordan Valley and will later be replaced with an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian force; the right of return for Palestinians will be carried out in the Palestinian state; Israel will accept a limited number of refugees, according to its wishes; the Clinton parameters will be implemented in Jerusalem, with Jewish neighborhoods for the Jews and Palestinian neighborhoods for Palestinians.
East Jerusalem will be the capital of Palestine, but with a unified municipal council; there will be "special provisions" for the Holy Basin; Arab countries will be invited to sign peace agreements with Israel.
Herzog suggests an interim period of five years, during which construction outside of the settlement blocs will be frozen. He also proposes to pass an evacuation-compensation law and prepare for housing for the settler evacuees, and that the separation barrier be adjusted to the border line. The two sides will act with an iron fist against terrorist groups within them, and the Palestinians will have the armed groups subject to their government.
"We're moving towards a disaster," Herzog told me the other day. "The nation is living in denial: it doesn't understand just how severe the political situation is. The entire world is welcoming the government formed by Abbas. We are approaching a difficult dispute with the American administration on many issues, including this one."
"We are standing at the crossroads. We are either headed towards a bi-national state, or towards an agreement. This is time for an initiative of our own."
Herzog also believes that even if the Palestinians don't adopt his initiative, it still has benefits - and "will improve our standing in the world."
"You aren't inventing the wheel with this plan," I told him.
"The wheel cannot be invented," he said.
"Why do you refrain from proposing a unilateral Israel move?" I asked.
"A unilateral move won't deliver the goods," he replied. "Following the withdrawal from Gaza, a unilateral move is considered something that doesn't provide Israelis with security, and rightly so. The people will not accept it. I'm not there."
In the past, Labor party leaders were wary of presenting peace programs. Occasionally, it was due to a fear of losing bargaining points with Palestinians; sometimes it was just an excuse.
Herzog wants to be freed from this legacy. Even if his plans do not constitute a landmark in the history of the conflict, they represent a landmark in the personal history of "Buji" (as Herzog is commonly known). In a place with no leaders, he seeks to be one. "A government under my leadership," he told me on Thursday. He repeated the words: "A government under my leadership."