Having the cake and eating it
Is Netanyahu about to recognise Palestine? If he does, watch out for the catch, writes Saleh Al-Naami
Israeli soldiers stand at an observatory overlooking the Dome of the Rock Mosque in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem (photo: AP)
The representative of the centrist Israeli Yesh Atid Party, which came second after the Likud Party in recent parliamentary elections, was surprised when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insisted on changing the topic of discussion with representatives of the party during consultations on the next government. Instead of focussing on the issue of drafting religious youth into the army, who are traditionally exempt from military service, Netanyahu chose to talk about the future of reaching a settlement with the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Yesh Atid’s representative was taken off-guard by what Netanyahu described as a “creative” way to restart negotiations with the PA. It is simply based on Israel preparing to recognise the Palestinian state that the UN recognised with observer status in the General Assembly, on the condition this does not require Israel to withdraw from areas in this state or dismantle Jewish settlements there.
Although Netanyahu’s proposal, which he is trying to quietly promote, is illogical, he claims the PA could agree to it. According to Netanyahu’s logic, the Palestinian state that his government would recognise would hold talks with Israel on permanent settlement issues, especially settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, sovereignty, security arrangements and others.
According to leaked reports in Israel, Netanyahu believes that by making this proposal he would strike two birds with one stone. First, reviving negotiations with a “Palestinian state” would restore Israel’s international standing, which dropped because of his government’s hardline positions on the settlement process. It would give Tel Aviv broad manoeuvring power in its relationship with its key allies in the US and Europe. Second, Netanyahu claims this formula would protect Israel’s domestic scene because the plan would in no way encroach on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, whether in large settlement compounds or remote ones. This way, construction would continue in these settlements and, according to Netanyahu, right-wing parties could join the government based on this plan since it maintains settlement projects in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and elsewhere until the end of negotiations with the Palestinian state.
Netanyahu is keen on reassuring settlers and leaders on the right that during talks with the “Palestinian state” Israel can insist on its position regarding Jewish settlements, even if this destroys negotiations. Meanwhile, Netanyahu believes left and centre forces would join his cabinet since they believe recognition of a Palestinian state is the best solution for the Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu is suggesting Israel’s new vision should be based on coordination with the US, so the latter would take the same step as Israel and recognise the Palestinian state and oversee negotiations with Israel. Netanyahu believes this formula is tempting for the Obama administration because that way Washington can tell the Arab world the settlement process is bearing fruit. It would also help Americans manage relations with the Arab world, especially after Arab Spring revolutions, and boost the standing and policies of Arab states allied with Washington that are viewed as part of the “moderate” axis, specifically Saudi Arabia, Gulf States and Jordan.
At the same time, Netanyahu believes PA President Mahmoud Abbas would find it difficult to turn him down, since the proposal includes Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state. This would enable Abbas to ask for the support of Palestinian public opinion in re-launching talks with Netanyahu’s government. There are also signs Netanyahu is willing to take several confidence-building steps to make it easier for Abbas to accept his offer, such as continuing to hand over tax revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the PA.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu realises that continuing the status quo in the West Bank would sooner or later trigger an even more powerful and threatening third Palestinian Intifada (Uprising) at this very critical strategic point for Israel. All strategic circles reporting to Netanyahu on the future of the Palestinian conflict argue if there is no breakthrough in negotiations with the PA, an Intifada is imminent.
Netanyahu realises the dangerous repercussions of a third Intifada in areas currently under PA control because it would be a priority strategic challenge for Israel. All forms of ongoing security cooperation between Israel and the PA would halt once a large number of Palestinians are killed, and ending security cooperation would directly mean deteriorating security conditions inside Israel because the West Bank is located close to main Israeli cities.
This would require Netanyahu to increase army operations and make them more brutal, creating the best environment for resistance groups to re-launch attacks against Israel. These operations completely stopped over the past three years, and not a single Palestinian is even on the “wanted” list of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency.
Everyone in Israel agrees that detonating the security situation and Israel’s brutal response against Palestinians would further deteriorate Tel Aviv’s international status. Israeli decision-makers realise since “Palestine” has observer status at the UN, this could lead to legal action against Israel at the International Criminal Court.
Netanyahu also knows that despite relative stability in countries where revolutions for democratic change occurred, Israel’s strategic environment continues to destabilise. This means another Intifada would trigger more hostile policies towards Israel by Arab neighbours, whether on the political (specifically Egypt) or security fronts. Islamist movements in the Arab region could decide that “championing” Palestinians requires attacking Israel across the border.
At the same time, strategic circles in Israel warn that Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria could allow some of its proxies to manufacture limited attacks from the Golan Heights in response to what Israel is doing, under the pretext of supporting Palestinians, in order to defend itself on the domestic and international fronts.
Netanyahu is most worried a third Intifada would affect Israel’s ability to drum up international support to thwart Iran’s nuclear programme. Israeli decision makers believe another uprising would curb Tel Aviv’s ability to ask the world community to continue imposing sanctions against Tehran, especially economic ones, to force Iran to halt its nuclear programme. Once an Intifada begins, media coverage of developments in the occupied Palestinian territories would make it difficult for Israel and the US to maintain international support of sanctions against Iran.
Meanwhile, decision makers and strategists in Israel agree an uprising would destabilise key regimes that are important to Israel and the US, such as Jordan. Netanyahu also fears the high economic price Israel would pay for confronting an uprising or repercussions of deteriorating security conditions. There is reason to believe this development would deter foreign investors in Israel, especially since Israel is experiencing a difficult economic crisis that forced Netanyahu to raise taxes, decrease public services and hike prices.
Although Netanyahu has much to gain, transforming his proposal into reality will not be easy. There might be strong opposition on the right, especially inside the Likud Party headed by Netanyahu. At the same time, it will be difficult for Abbas to defend his approval of Netanyahu’s plan because it does not halt settlements and Judaisation measures.
Making this proposal official will make it part of the domestic debate among Palestinians and Israeli for some time to come. Offering to recognise a Palestinian state while keeping settlements and Judaisation in place is like having your cake and eating it.