TEL AVIV — Escalating pressures from abroad and within are pushing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to clarify once and for all his coalition government’s policy on two-state peace with the Palestine Authority (PA).
As world leaders, movie stars and other luminaries converged here last week to honor Israeli President Shimon Peres on his 90th birthday, Netanyahu was graciously supportive yet noncommittal to the nonagenarian’s US- and EU-backed vision of a secure Israel living alongside a demilitarized Palestinian state.
But Netanyahu is finding it increasingly difficult to bridge international expectations for a two-state peace with the gaping domestic dissent shaking his three-month-old government. With US Secretary of State John Kerry visiting the region this week to reactivate talks, Netanyahu soon will be forced to reconcile his professed, albeit conditional, support for a Palestinian state with prominent naysayers within his top ranks.
“Netanyahu can no longer count on the convenience of ambiguity to stave off competing constituencies. He’ll very soon have to reveal his true face with regard to the two-state solution,” said Alon Pincas, a former Israeli consul-general in New York who participated in rounds of Palestinian peace talks.
In a week of events honoring Peres, the sole surviving partner of a 1993 agreement with PA, Barbra Streisand, Sharon Stone, Bill Clinton and other celebrities joined forces in prodding the Netanyahu government back to the negotiating table. From Streisand’s nationally televised song of prayer to Clinton’s insistence that there is no “credible alternative… for preserving Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state,” high-profile visitors exhorted Israel to embrace the two-state plan.
“Democracy is not only majority rule, but also minority rights,” Clinton said in an address at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot, south of here.
Referring to the nearly 2.7 million Palestinians — according to latest CIA estimates — living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Clinton said, “The question [the Israeli public has to] confront is, is it really OK with you if Israel has people in its territory that will never be allowed to vote? If so, can you say with a straight face that this is a democracy? If you let them vote, can you live with not being a Jewish state?”
Closer to home, Netanyahu’s professed Palestine policy was openly maligned by leaders in his own government, some of whom threatened to quash any meaningful steps toward a two-state deal.
Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s political partner in the coalition government who chairs the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, suggested Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Ramallah is destined to fail, with negative consequences for both sides.
“If you keep spreading around hopes and expectations all the time and they cannot be realized, it only ends up causing disappointment and frustration,” said Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister in absentia pending a verdict in his ongoing corruption trial.
Netanyahu was further embarrassed by his minister for economy and trade, who essentially eulogized the notion of a Palestinian state and called for Israeli annexation of most of the West Bank.
In an intemperate June 19 address to a conference of Jewish settlers, Naftali Bennett said: “The idea of creating a Palestinian state is over.”
Israeli Justice Minister Tsipi Livni, Netanyahu’s lead negotiator with the Palestinians, has repeatedly threatened to quit the coalition if the Israeli premier cannot muzzle hardliners bent on undermining resumed peace talks.
Meanwhile, at a June 18 meeting in Jerusalem with diplomats and foreign press, Israel’s top commander in the West Bank presented an operational assessment that appeared to support both sides of the two-state divide.
Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, commander of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Central Command, said the shuttle diplomacy by Kerry had a stabilizing influence on the Palestinian streets of the West Bank.
Nevertheless, he said Hamas, the extreme Muslim authority in Gaza that rejects Israel’s right to exist, was maneuvering for control over the largely secular Fatah organization administering the PA in the West Bank.
“Hamas is restrained in Gaza, but trying to translate its vision into a plan to dominate Palestinian society in the West Bank,” Alon told the gathering at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “But I don’t think Hamas can get into power as long as we are on the ground.”
The commander credited Kerry’s push for resumed peace talks for a halt in PA financing and other forms of support for grassroots activity against the Israeli occupation.
“The last couple of months of intense American involvement has had a positive influence on the ground. The PA has almost stopped financing groups dealing with riots and protests against Israel,” said Alon.
At the same time, the IDF commander warned that expectations generated by ongoing diplomacy could trigger renewed violence should Kerry fail to relaunch peace talks. “If this happens, I’m afraid we’ll see the strain of escalation strengthened,” Alon said.