Tel Aviv — Can Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a master tightrope walker — balance between the demands of an angry U.S. administration and the insistent right flank of his governing coalition?
Can he advance down the path of negotiations with the U.S. and Palestinians while continuing to hold fast to a coalition dominated by hardliners who are opposed to territorial concessions?
Those are the questions front and center in Israel this week as what is being described as the worst crisis between the United States and Israel in a generation grinds on despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s softer rhetoric on Tuesday.
“I think that Netanyahu is at a moment of truth,” said Gideon Doron, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University. “He has to choose whether or not he wants to ignite the forces for peace, or whether he’ll go against the U.S. and play for time.”
Of the latter option, Doron said: “He can’t do that. It’s suicide.”
Yet in the view of a wide swath of Israelis, the status quo is not a bad option, especially given the fact that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are at odds and chances for movement in the peace process are therefore limited at best.
Some observers believe that Netanyahu actually has more wiggle room with his coalition partners than it seems at first glance. Both Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai have repeatedly expressed doubts about negotiations. Yishai has ruled out any compromises on Jerusalem.
But David Glass, a lawyer who has represented the Shas party in coalition negotiations, said that Shas would likely remain consistent with its longstanding preference for sitting in the government to defecting to the opposition. With a corruption investigation clouding his political future, Lieberman is also unlikely to go into the opposition.
In addition, opposition leader Tzipi Livni of the Kadima party is unlikely to throw a life raft to Netanyahu, said Shimon Shiffer, a political columnist for Yediot Ahronot.
“I don’t think he’s going to have to choose,” he said. “He’ll survive this crisis with the American administration with his coalition intact because that’s the prime minister’s only option.”
But Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, who has covered the Mideast thoughtfully for years, reported on his blog Tuesday that President Obama might be trying to set the scene for including Livni “in a broad-based centrist government.”
Citing sources in Washington and elsewhere, Goldberg said the president is not “directly meddling” in internal Israeli politics, but believes, as do many others, that no progress on the peace front will come while Lieberman and Yishai remain in their key cabinet posts.
The scenario would be to force a confrontation over concessions to the Palestinians, which would lead to Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu party and Yishai’s Shas to leave the government, paving the way for Livni, if she so chooses.
“It’s up to Livni, of course, to recognize that it is in Israel’s best interests to join a government with Netanyahu and Barak,” writes Goldberg, “and I, for one, hope she puts the interests of Israel ahead of her own ambitions.
A veteran of U.S.-Israel relations, former ambassador to the U.S. Zalman Shoval is downplaying the air of crisis, saying what’s needed to defuse the issue is direct talks between the allies.
“It’s not the content of the demands, but the way they are being presented,”’ Shoval, a foreign policy adviser to the prime minister, told The Jewish Week, referring to the angry tone of the administration’s protest. “The best way to allay [the demands] is to talk.”
His comments came after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Israel must demonstrate its commitment to the peace process. She and other top administration officials were said to be livid after Vice President Biden’s visit to the Mideast last week was effectively upended by an interior ministry announcement of plans to build 1,600 housing units for Jews in east Jerusalem.
The announcement left in limbo efforts to renew peace negotiations (albeit indirect) after a year’s hiatus. The Palestinians said continued building in Jerusalem makes it hard to participate in talks.
Biden condemned the building plan twice, but Netanyahu thought the crisis had been contained after the vice president accepted his apology. The ensuing lambasting from the administration “is not something that one expects from good friends and allies,” Shoval said.
The former ambassador said that the crisis isn’t good for the peace process because it is making Palestinians stiffen their preconditions to return to the talks.
Israel is reportedly being requested to cancel its plan to build in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, located just over the Green Line in northern Jerusalem. It’s also being pressed to extend the freeze in building starts in the West Bank.
Netanyahu responded to Clinton in a statement released Tuesday evening by the prime minister’s office.
“Regarding the commitment to peace — the Government of Israel has demonstrated in the last year its commitment to peace in words and deeds — a decision that the U.S. secretary of state defined as ‘unprecedented.’” Netanyahu was referring to Israel’s agreeing to a 10-month building freeze in the West Bank.
Netanyahu reportedly has few allies within the U.S. administration. Vice President Biden was described by the local press as his only personal friend in the White House.
“This wasn’t about the Israeli government. This was about Bibi. They distrust him viscerally,” said one Western diplomat who requested to remain anonymous. “Nobody knows what Bibi stands for. He’s a chameleon.”
The diplomat acknowledged however, that the Obama administration’s decision to lash out at Israel in public has emboldened the Palestinians to dig in their heels.
“It lets the Palestinians off the hook,” the diplomat said. “The Palestinians want an enforced agreement which is why they must feel absolutely joyous.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has told the Obama administration that continued building in Jerusalem undermines the talks. On Monday, Netanyahu said that all Israeli governments have built in Jerusalem until now, though he stopped short of declaring that building will continue.
While keeping Jerusalem “united” is a consensus among most Israelis, attitudes differ on building in predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods, which is viewed as provocative by some.
The prime minister said that half of the Jewish population of Jerusalem lives over the Green Line in neighborhoods deemed “settlements” by the international community.
Most of the Jerusalem municipality’s development plans lie in east Jerusalem — including plans for 50,000 units, according to Haaretz.
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