Israeli-Palestinian talks have been deadlocked for some time. Eight months in, the sides have not made much apparent progress. Now, talks are on the verge of collapse.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is eager to keep them going for another eight months.
Why? On its face, the collapse of the talks would seem to give the prime minister an easy out. It would placate his coalition’s right flank, stabilizing his government. He could portray the Palestinians as inflexible, a narrative many Israelis — including centrist coalition partner Yesh Atid — would likely buy. He could continue expanding settlements, as he’s done since he took office again five years ago. And he would avoid the release of more Palestinian prisoners — something many of his constituents oppose.
Instead, he’s reportedly offering to free 400 Palestinian prisoners in addition to those he has already committed to release, along with a partial freeze on settlement expansion. In the prospective exchange, he would get more negotiations with the Palestinian Authority until 2015 and secure the freedom of Jonathan Pollard, the American intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel.
Israel’s proposed concessions could endanger Netanyahu’s coalition, and it doesn’t look likely that, in the next eight months, negotiators will suddenly solve issues that have stalled them for the previous eight months.
But Pollard’s release, a consensus issue in Israel’s Knesset, would be a feather in Netanyahu’s cap.
Beyond that, continued talks give the prime minister a few added benefits. Eight more months of talks with the Palestinians, however unproductive, mean eight months when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas won’t go to the United Nations for upgraded statehood recognition. The extended period would cover the September meeting of the UN General Assembly.
And keeping the talks going means added legitimacy in the eyes of the Obama administration and the international community.
At home, such a deal would provide political benefits along with the risks. Polls show that most Israelis want a peace accord but are skeptical of its chances. Netanyahu has gained public favour by appearing tough on the international stage. By staying in talks, he could try to portray himself as a leader who wants peace without compromising Israel’s vital interests.
More talks would also mean marginalizing his right-wing rivals. His main challenger in his Likud party, Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon, has vowed to resign his deputy ministerial post if more prisoners go free. And if the pro-settler Jewish Home party stays in the coalition, more talks would keep it in the awkward position of consenting to conditions that it opposes vehemently — like a settlement freeze.
And though Netanyahu is risk-averse, he may want to take another stab at leaving a lasting legacy. In his eight total years running Israel, he has largely maintained the status quo. Eight more months of talks could be his best way to buy time — but he may also see them as a chance to be remembered for more.