Following reports of an unprecedented U.S. offer of a host of assurances in return for a 60-day extension of the freeze on building in West Bank settlements, some political analysts are wondering why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not grabbed the deal with both hands.
According to the reports, U.S. President Barack Obama is offering Netanyahu pledges that the United States will:
• Not ask for additional extensions on the partial ban on settlement building, which expired Sept. 26;
• Commit to using the U.S. veto to prevent UN recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations fail to bear fruit;
• “Accept the legitimacy” of Israel’s security needs as defined by the Netanyahu government – understood as referring to Netanyahu’s demand for a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, in the eastern West Bank;
• Broker talks with neighbouring Arab states on a “regional security structure” – a nod to Netanyahu’s desire for co-operation on confronting Iran;
• Enhance Israel’s security through the sale of a second squadron of state-of-the-art stealth F-35 fighters and space co-operation, including access to U.S. satellite early warning systems.
The price: Israel must agree to extend for 60 days the recently expired West Bank building freeze.
If Netanyahu spurns the offer, Israel not only would lose out on all the above, but the Americans would come out publicly in support of the 1967 borders as the basis for all future territorial negotiations with the Palestinians.
On its face, the deal would seem like a no-brainer for Netanyahu to take. So why hasn’t he?
For one thing, it’s not only up to Netanyahu. He needs the approval of a settlement freeze extension from his 29-member cabinet or at least his 15-member Security Cabinet, and he doesn’t have enough votes yet in those bodies. While by most accounts Netanyahu is inclined to take the deal and is pushing for cabinet members to approve it, the United States first might have to sweeten the pot.
The U.S. offer followed intensive negotiations in Washington between Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and an American team led by veteran Middle East adviser Dennis Ross. The idea was to affirm the U.S. commitments in a presidential letter to Netanyahu to persuade him and pro-settlement members of his government to go along with a new temporary freeze – and in so doing keep alive the direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched in early September. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has pledged to quit the talks if the freeze is not extended.
For now, the Israeli prime minister is being pressed by cabinet hardliners not to accept the American package as is. They warn that it is all very general and that much of it will not stand up in practice.
The hardliners are suspicious, too, of Barak’s motives. They believe Barak is behind the American offer because he fears that if the peace talks with the Palestinians break down, his Labor Party would be forced to withdraw from the government. Such a move would cost Barak the post of defense minister and, in all likelihood, his political future.
As things stand, Netanyahu does not have the votes for the deal.
In the full 29-member cabinet, 14 ministers are for extending the freeze and 15 are against. In the 15-member security cabinet, the count is seven for and eight against, and in the unofficial forum of seven top advisers, three are for extending the freeze and four are against.
In Netanyahu’s governing coalition, without the support of Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and Likud hardliners, the prime minister would have the support of fewer than 40 members of the 120-member Knesset.
Netanyahu’s greatest political fear is of a repeat of 1999, when after making concessions to Palestinians at Wye Plantation, he lost his right-wing political support base and was roundly defeated by Barak in the ensuing election. This time, the scenario that Netanyahu wants to avoid is accepting an American package, going ahead with the peacemaking and then losing the next election to Kadima’s Tzipi Livni.
Even if Netanyahu could jettison the pro-settler parties from his coalition and bring in Kadima – changing the balance of power in the government and the Knesset in favour of pro-negotiation parties, and accepting the U.S. package – it could cost him the premiership.
Netanyahu therefore is being extra careful about making any moves that could lose him large swaths of what he sees as his natural constituency.
The Israeli prime minister also has a major strategic concern. According to confidants, he fears that as soon as any new 60-day freeze ends, the Americans will put a “take it or leave it peace plan” of their own on the table. With the U.S. midterm elections over, Obama might feel able to publicly present parameters for a peace deal that Netanyahu would find impossible to accept.
Israel might then find itself totally isolated and under intolerable international pressure. That is a scenario Netanyahu hopes the current negotiations with the Americans will help him avoid.
So far, Netanyahu has spoken of ongoing “delicate” negotiations with the Americans and implied that much of what has been reported in the press is inaccurate.
As so often in the past, Netanyahu is caught between the U.S. administration and his right-leaning coalition. If he chooses his coalition, he risks losing the support of the current administration. If he chooses America, he fears he could lose his coalition and, with it, the premiership.
What Labor and Likud moderates reportedly are telling him is that it is not 1999, and that now he can have his cake and eat it, too: If he goes with the Americans and the peace process, he will win the next election hands down.