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The Horns of Bibi’s Dilemma

Snubbed by the PA, in trouble on his right flank at home over his settlement policy, Prime Minister Netanyahu walks a tightrope between Washington's desires and Israel's security needs.

by
Michael Weiss

Bio

December 27, 2009 - 12:49 am

As of 1977, the platform of the right-wing Likud Party in Israel was quite clear on the matter of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank: “The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is eternal and indisputable and is linked with the right to security and peace; therefore, Judaea and Samaria will not be handed to any foreign administration; between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.”

It would be understating the case to say that this policy has been quietly subject to revision and attrition over the past decade. Beginning in 1998 with the Wye River Memorandum, which saw a first-term Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hand over most of Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, to the then-nascent Palestinian Authority, and continuing into 2005 when Ariel Sharon brought off his unilateral disengagement plan from Gaza, dismantling the very settlements he had once encouraged, the establishment right in Israel has, through fits of ideological bluster and resignation, adopted a pragmatic position on the occupied territories, however difficult it may be for some to acknowledge the fact.

Last June, Netanyahu, now in his second administration, announced his acceptance of the two-state solution. Though grudging, overdue, and more or less forced by President Obama’s Cairo address a month earlier, the speech Netanyahu gave at Bar-Ilan University stood in marked contrast to the grumblings of a finance minister who not long before resigned from Sharon’s cabinet over the Gaza withdrawal. He’s also removed a record number of outposts and checkpoints in the West Bank, lending his tacit support to the enormous material strides made by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, another U.S-educated economist and in many ways Netanyahu’s natural interlocutor — if only Fayyad were entitled to deal.

Chastened by his years out of power, but considerably wiser as a statesman, Netanyahu has publicly come around to espousing a doctrine of conservative conciliation, best articulated recently by Dov Weissglas, Sharon’s former legal adviser, in a New York Times article assessing Bibi’s capacity for peacemaking. “No one in the world agrees to Israel’s presence in a majority of the Judea and Samaria territories and the continued construction there,” Weissglas told the Times’ Ethan Bronner. “Israeli persistence will bring upon it diplomatic isolation, and this is something that Israel cannot afford.”

He was referring specifically to Netanyahu’s latest reversal, announced in early December, to impose a 10-month “freeze” on settlement construction in the West Bank, barring three thousand housing units still slated for completion — an about-face arrived at after months of awkward bartering with the White House, during which period many premature obituaries of the Jerusalem-Washington “special relationship” were authored and Obama wound up with more egg on his face than altered facts on the ground. Small wonder, then, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose to term Netanyahu’s alternative freeze proposal “unprecedented.” Close, but not quite. In keeping with the ideologue-turned-pragmatist tradition of Likudnik prime ministers, Netanyahu has only replicated Menachem Begin’s three-month construction pause during the 1979 peace talks with Anwar Sadat, the fruit of which was Jimmy Carter’s only foreign policy accomplishment, the Camp David Accords. And should Obama fail to wrangle a similarly historic agreement out of the Netanyahu program, he’ll have the ready-made excuse of Palestinian intransigence.

Abbas, who has lately threatened to resign the PA presidency despite the likelihood that this would incite a third intifada, categorically refused to renew peace talks with Israel unless all the cranes and cement mixers of East Jerusalem likewise fell silent. This sine qua non for preliminary negotiations seems especially extravagant in light of the recent disclosure that Abbas formerly ceded to Israel the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramot, Ramot Alon, Ramat Shlomo, Pisgat Ze’ev, Neve Ya’akov, Ma’alot Dafna, French Hill and Gilo (long a hotspot in the settlement debate) in a proposed border-drawing and land exchange kibitz with Tzipi Livni. Abbas implied in an interview with Haaretz last week that by not formally “declaring” a more comprehensive moratorium on construction but by simply carrying it out, Israel might skirt domestic upheaval, and Netanyahu acute political embarrassment. There was no chance of either happening.

Already, the Israeli premier’s plan has been met with fury or condescension at home, depending on whom you consult. His left-wing critics, who never miss an opportunity to miss one of Netanyahu’s climb-downs, dismiss the program as opportunistic; all Bibi really wants, they claim, is American support for an inevitable strike on Iran (failing that, they neglect to mention, actual American diplomatic headway on forestalling the mullahs’ acquisition of the bomb would also be nice). Furthermore, what Netanyahu has taken away from Likud dogmatists here, he has redistributed to them elsewhere. See, for instance, his needless restoration of national-priority status to smaller Jewish territories that fall outside the three major settlement blocs in the West Bank.

This minor messianic stimulus package has approximately 110 million shekels going to settlements that will almost certainly disappear in any future final-status agreement. According to Aluf Benn, Netanyahu conceived this as “a small, easy gesture that might mollify settlers’ anger and restore quiet to Jerusalem’s streets. Or at least to his own Likud party.” Yet despite his attempts to reassure Likud of his continued commitment to its expansionist principles, Netanyahu must now buck threats of criminal defiance by settlers who accuse him of the worst betrayal. His milksop hasn’t worked.

Earlier this month a mosque in the West Bank town of Yasuf was desecrated by Jewish villagers who scrawled racist graffiti on the walls and immolated holy books inside — an act of vandalism that elicited Netanyahu’s condemnation and solemn promise to bring the assailants to justice. Last Wednesday, 10,000 of the prime minister’s constituents, most of them settlers, staged a protest outside his home in Jerusalem, led by a chant, “Bibi, you can’t freeze our spirit! We’ll continue to build the land of Israel, with or without you!”  And these are just the “visceral” responses. A more organized conservative effort to undercut the freeze is currently underway.

Danny Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha council of settlements, along with Knesset members Tzipi Hotovely, said to be Likud’s “rising star,” and Uri Ariel of the reactionary National Union, convened a meeting in the settlement of Ofra this month to brainstorm methods of stopping their government’s stop order. (Dozens of new inspectors are to be imported to the West Bank and satellite photographs are to be taken of the area to determine what’s already been built versus what will be built in violation of the freeze.) As reported by Haaretz, the “chairman of the Binyamin regional council suggested, among other things, that ‘everyone begin building. Add a shed, and make it white so that the satellites will pick it up. Build new structures, for B’nei Akiva, for whatever, build them far from the gates so that it will take the inspectors a long time to reach them.’” The regional council also advanced the idea of erecting structures “on a hill, so that the tractors won’t be able to demolish them, and they will have to be demolished by hand.”

Concealed construction runs apace with settlers’ other method of outflanking Netanyahu — military insubordination. On December 13, Defense Minister Ehud Barak officially severed the IDF’s ties to the Har Bracha Yeshiva in the northern West Bank, whose rabbis had instructed young soldiers to disobey settlement evacuation orders (though none are called for in Netanyahu’s proposal). Jewish clerics in the West Bank have instructed high school seniors to defer their mandatory enlistment in the IDF until Barak folds. Conscientious objection, once the exclusive domain of the Peace Now contingent, is more and more being taken up by the religious right as a way of thwarting colonial rollback. As Gershom Gorenberg reported in the American Prospect this past November:

[S]ix soldiers in the Nahshon Battalion — part of the brigade that polices the West Bank — unfurled a sign on a rooftop at their base declaring that they would not evict settlers. The two ringleaders, who were jailed and demoted, had studied at a yeshivah in the settlement of Elon Moreh, known for its ultra-nationalist atmosphere. The protest followed the demolition earlier that day of two illegally built houses at the settlement of Negohot. The head of the Elon Moreh yeshivah, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, said afterward on Israeli Radio that ordering his students to evacuate settlers was “illogical, insufferable, [and] opposed to all of their personal morality.”

Thus, not for the first time are religious Jewish nationalists preparing to conduct themselves as enemies of the Jewish state. But that such an incipient civil war has broken out under Netanyahu’s watch is telling. The ash heap of Oslo and the blood and tears of two intifadas have vitiated the Israeli left such that the socialist Labour Party founded by David Ben-Gurion is today an electoral nullity; the only major opposition Netanyahu faces is a party that itself claims schismatic discipleship from Vladimir Jabotinsky.

Attempts by the United States to undermine Netanyahu on his own turf are now met with derision and recrimination, whatever Obama’s true poll numbers are in Israel — another stunning contrast to the early nineties when Bill Clinton came to Jerusalem and successfully played the role of kingmaker. Yet with the emergence of a center-right consensus in Israel, a process that began under Sharon, the pro-settlement right has grown more emboldened and radical. “As we say in Hebrew, things look different from there than they do from here,” Isaac Herzog, Netyanahu’s welfare minister told the Times.

Yes, but from which side of the Green Line did it ever seem likely that Bibi would emerge on the side of the liberals?

Michael Weiss is a senior editor of Tablet Magazine and a culture blogger for The New Criterion. He also writes occasionally for Slate, The Weekly Standard, City Journal, The New York Daily News and Standpoint.
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