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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Netanyahu and Direct Talks with the Palestinians

Listening to Prime Minister Netanyahu's remarks the past few months regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, one cannot help but wonder: Netanyahu seems to be going out of his way to open direct negotiations with the Palestinians as soon as possible. The prime minister has said he is aiming for intensive negotiations toward a comprehensive settlement (the "agreement in stages" approach, explains Netanyahu, has failed and will not resume).

According to Netanyahu, the situation in the Middle East is "fluid" and the future of key states like Iran, Turkey, and Egypt is unclear. This volatile state of affairs, he stressed, provides a window of opportunity to reach an agreement, and therefore it is incumbent on the Palestinians to abandon their belief/illusion that a third party, i.e., the United States, will drop a ready-made agreement into their hands. There is no substitute for direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

From this it might appear that Netanyahu believes that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is within reach; that the Palestinian side is actually capable of implementing an agreement; and that Netanyahu and his government have the capability to implement an agreement at an acceptable political price. However, it is highly doubtful that these assumptions drive Netanyahu's assessment.

An experienced leader like Netanyahu is no doubt aware of the enormous gaps between the two sides that are little likely to be bridged in the foreseeable future. Neither is he blind to the considerable skepticism as to the power and ability of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to implement such an agreement even if he wanted to. Above all, Netanyahu is certainly aware of the serious constraints he must face in implementing such an arrangement, as well as the associated risks to his government and political future. An agreement of this nature will probably require the evacuation of tens of thousands of Israelis from Judea and Samaria, a process that would almost certainly involve violence of an unknown extent. Moreover, an arrangement of this sort will inevitably prompt the disbanding of the current coalition, a rift in Netanyahu's Likud party, new elections, and possibly the end of Mr. Netanyahu's political career.

Where, then, is Netanyahu attempting to go with his repeated calls for the resumption of direct negotiations with the Palestinians? Netanyahu's July 8 appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, a prestigious think tank in New York, may provide an answer, albeit partial, to the questions presented above.

In his speech Netanyahu chose to relay a positive message regarding the relationship that currently exists between Israel and the United States. Netanyahu echoed President Obama, describing the "unbreakable bond" that supersedes the occasional disputes that arise between them. These disputes, he explained, are tactical disagreements over the best way in which to maintain the peace process; there is no question as to the necessity for intensive and direct negotiations. Netanyahu is well aware that his relationship with the Obama administration, even now, is much less rosy than what he describes to his listeners. It seems he believes that a mantra on his desire to open direct negotiations with the Palestinians will create a comfortable environment in his relationship with the administration, which sees the negotiations as a supreme United States interest.

Netanyahu issued a number of demands of the Palestinians that all bore the same two distinct characteristics:

a.    The demands seem reasonable for a negotiated peace agreement between states. Netanyahu can assume, with much confidence, that the Obama administration cannot reject them - or at least most of them - out of hand. He can also assume that the demands will be accepted by other figures, especially Congress, in the media, and among public opinion, which may even be sympathetic to them. These positions will also likely have a broad consensus among Israeli public opinion and political circles, including the left.

b.    At the same time these demands are not likely to be accepted (or even able to be accepted) by the Palestinian Authority, and most certainly not in the way presented by Netanyahu.

At the outset, Netanyahu made it clear that Israel rejects Palestinian preconditions for direct negotiations between the parties, which included: negotiations will begin from the point they left off under the Olmert government; and Israel will continue the building freeze in Judea and Samaria, East Jerusalem included. Netanyahu insisted that negotiations must be conducted without preconditions, as since the Oslo accords.

Netanyahu emphasized that the essence of the agreement is the principle of "two states for two peoples," whereby the State of Israel recognizes the Palestinian state as the national state of the Palestinian people, while the demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the state of Israel as a Jewish state. This recognition implies an end to the conflict and end of claims, not only by the Palestinian Authority but also from Israeli Arabs (i.e., a demand for autonomous status in the Negev and/or the Galilee). Netanyahu did not elaborate on how he intends the Palestinian Authority to exercise authority over Israeli Arabs.

Israel's national security following the withdrawal that will most likely accompany any Israeli-Palestinian agreement must be guaranteed. Israel, explains Netanyahu, has had bad experience in withdrawing from territories, e.g., Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. In both cases, militant elements associated with Iran have entered the area and launched rockets into Israel. Israel must thus ensure that this phenomenon does not repeat itself and incur a risk to Israel's cities, airports, and important military installations. For Israel, according to Netanyahu, "the pillar of security has to be enormously powerful, concrete" and ensure demilitarization of the Palestinian state and especially prevention of missile smuggling.

Based on Netanyahu's firm stance on the matter, it appears that the task of supervising the demilitarization of a Palestinian state would lie with Israel and its security forces. As implied by Netanyahu's remarks, Israel cannot rely upon foreign forces in this context. Netanyahu made it clear that this issue was discussed at length in his meeting with President Obama: "Both of us," he stressed, are committed "to try to find a realistic concrete solution to this issue."

Netanyahu's vision for the Israeli-Palestinian agreement questions the ideal implied by the two-state principle. Netanyahu's perception of the Palestinian state is a country whose borders and airports must be supervised by Israeli forces for years to come. Netanyahu clarified that the "time factor," i.e. the extent of the security framework needed to implement the agreement, constitutes an essential part of the agreement itself. This Palestinian state is not the sovereign state called for by the Palestinians and by President Obama, and it is s hard to imagine that the Palestinian Authority would accept it. Similarly, the other conditions Netanyahu presented, notably the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the cessation of claims, have little likelihood of being accepted by the Palestinian Authority anytime soon, certainly not in the manner presented by Netanyahu.

Thus, any chance for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the near future is tenuous at best, as well as loaded with risks for both sides. Consequently, the Netanyahu government seems to have come to the conclusion that the real battle now and in the foreseeable future is over the administration's position and public opinion in the United States and Israel, namely, who is responsible for the lack of an agreement. Netanyahu probably assumes, and justifiably so, that the administration will have trouble completely rejecting Israel's demands regarding the agreement, and will thus refrain from imposing the entire blame for its failure upon Israel.

However, Netanyahu must take into account the possibility that the Obama administration could demand that he agree to a "deposit formula," similar to the one used before in regard to the Golan Heights issue, i.e., an unequivocal clarification as to the extent of the withdrawal to which Netanyahu would be willing to agree (that is, if and when the Palestinians accept the conditions, in full or in part) "for the administration's eyes only." If a deposit is indeed demanded of him, Netanyahu will find himself in a tight spot, from which he will have difficulty emerging unscathed.

The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. 

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