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Will Bibi go left or right?

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Israeli army officers during a March 8 visit to the Jordan Valley in the west bank, said the Israeli army must maintain its presence along the length of the Jordan Valley in any future peace arrangement reached with the Palestinians. Moshe Milner/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Israel is staring at a fork in the road, with potential disaster along either path.

On the path to the left lies a major Israeli peace initiative that deals with all the core issues under dispute with the Palestinians. On the path to the right lies more waiting, possibly with some kind of offer of an interim peace agreement with the Palestinians, until conditions are right for something more.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man behind the wheel at this critical juncture, is expected to announce a new peace initiative within the next two months, and the battle over which path it will hew to is causing serious divisions within his cabinet.

News Analysis

His defense minister, Ehud Barak, says the only way to head off a “diplomatic tsunami” that will engulf the Jewish state is by pressing for a major initiative on the Palestinian track that deals with all the core issues. Likud moderates such as Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan support Barak’s stance.

Hard-liners from the ruling Likud Party warn that if Israel makes premature territorial concessions, disaster will follow. Benny Begin, Silvan Shalom, and Moshe Ya’alon are leading this very strong and vocal campaign against Barak’s proposal.

The debate has brought to the fore the fundamental differences within the cabinet on the Palestinian issue.

Barak argues that unless Israel has a peace plan on the table within the next few months, it could suffer its worst-ever diplomatic defeat. With Israel failing to offer any alternative, he envisions a situation in which the Palestinians take their case to the United Nations in September and get wall-to-wall international recognition of their state along the 1967 lines without having to make concessions on borders, refugees or Jerusalem — or even declare an end to the conflict.

In Barak’s view, if Israel wants its case to be heard, it must offer an alternative plan. Otherwise, it will find itself under increasing international pressure to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines without even its most basic security demands taken into account. Israel also will face growing delegitimization as an occupying power in defiance of the will of the international community.

“It would be a mistake to ignore this tsunami,” he said Sunday at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Israel’s delegitimization is just over the horizon, even if the public doesn’t see it. It’s very dangerous and we need to act.”

For the hard-liners, the danger lies in what they call Barak’s “delusional” approach. Ya’alon, who like Barak is a former Israeli army chief of staff, argues that it is dangerously naive to think the conflict can be solved by territorial concessions when the real problem is a fundamental Palestinian refusal to come to terms with Israel’s existence.

Ya’alon says that even moderate Palestinian leaders such as Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas would like to see Israel disappear, and that peace will be possible only when the Palestinian mind-set changes and all forms of anti-Israel education and incitement stop.

It’s a view that has gained some more traction among the Israeli public following the brutal killings last Friday night of five family members in the west bank Jewish settlement of Itamar.

For now, Ya’alon says, the focus should be on Palestinian institution-building and economic improvement; in other words, slow bottom-up building of a Palestinian capacity for peace. Big ambitious peace moves like Barak’s inevitably will fail and likely spawn new violence, he says. Ya’alon insists that any proposed new peace plan should have no territorial dimension.

Which way is Netanyahu likely to go?

On the one hand, he and his closest advisers have a great deal of respect for Barak and are well aware of the widespread international perception that it is Netanyahu’s foot-dragging on peacemaking that is responsible for the current impasse. Indeed, the leaks on Netanyahu’s purported new peace plan followed a heated telephone exchange in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly accused Netanyahu of having “done nothing to advance peace.”

Similarly, on March 1, President Obama told a roomful of American Jewish organizational leaders that they and their friends and colleagues in Israel should “search your souls” over Israel’s seriousness about making peace.

On the other hand, Netanyahu’s circle is comprised of hard-liners who are widely believed to wield much influence over the prime minister. The prime minister also has made some recent hard-line moves — for example, appointing the hawkish Yaakov Amidror as his new national security adviser and holding talks with the far right National Union Party on joining the governing coalition.

The question is not whether Netanyahu will present a peace plan but how far he will go.

Despite Ya’alon’s reservations, the plan is expected to focus on territorial and security issues, and the linkage between them. The way the plan is shaping up, Israel probably will offer to hand over more territory to full Palestinian jurisdiction ahead of negotiations on final borders and allay Palestinian fears that the interim stage will become permanent.

Under the plan, the United States will assure the Palestinians that final borders will be based on the pre-1967 lines with relatively minor land swaps, and Israel will seek U.S. assurances for an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley and for retention of large settlement blocs as part of Israel proper.

On the basis of the plan, reflecting Israeli good will and seriousness about peacemaking with a strong international underpinning, the Palestinians will be invited to talks on all the core issues.

Due to the differences between cabinet moderates and hard-liners, Netanyahu has not discussed the plan in the Forum of Seven senior ministers, which includes Barak, Meridor, Begin, and Ya’alon. Instead he is holding a series of one-on-one consultations.

There will also have to be detailed talks with the Americans to finalize a package in which they have a major role.

Despite the hype surrounding the new peace package, it remains too early to gauge whether Netanyahu is serious about peacemaking, as he insists, or simply playing for time, as his critics contend.

But with perception growing overseas that Netanyahu is the problem, not the Palestinians, the onus is on the prime minister to prove that this time he means business.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Ahead of Palestinian U.N. gambit, Europe is in play

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French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe visits the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on June 2 during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority territories. Isaac Harari/FLASH90/JTA

JERUSALEM – It was a sign that ties between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations remain strong despite the apparent tensions two weeks ago when the two leaders met at the White House.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shot down a French proposal for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that had put the Israeli leader in a quandary.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had accepted the French proposal, which included a settlement freeze, his right-leaning coalition partners might have bolted the government. If he refused, it would have made it seem as if he were the intransigent party in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — a perilous position as France and other leading European states consider voting for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in September.

During a visit to Israel and the west bank in early June, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe outlined his plan for restarting the stalled peace process: The goal would be to establish two states for two peoples on the basis of the 1967 lines with land swaps; borders and security would be discussed first, Jerusalem and refugees later. That part of the proposal mirrored Obama’s call two weeks ago for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks.

But the French proposal also envisaged achieving a full-fledged permanent peace deal within a year and a freeze of any unilateral steps in the interim. For the Palestinians, that would mean not petitioning the United Nations for statehood in September. For Israel, it would mean halting settlement construction in the west bank.

Juppe invited Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas to an international conference in Paris in July to kick-start the process. Abbas quickly replied in the affirmative. Netanyahu said he would first consult with the Americans.

The package was attractive to the Palestinians because of its clear focus on the 1967 lines and its relatively short timetable. The sweetener for Israel was the explicit reference to “two states for two peoples,” implying that Israel would be, as Netanyahu insists, recognized as the state of the Jewish people.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu found himself in a bind. He already had said no to negotiations structured that way when Obama raised the issue. Netanyahu insists the Palestinians first recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a sign of readiness to end the conflict. In addition, Hamas, the terrorist organization that is now part of the Palestinian leadership following the recent reconciliation with Fatah, must recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and accept all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements before a credible peace process can be contemplated.

But perhaps even more important, Netanyahu has serious issues with the 1967 lines plus land swaps formula. He insists on maintaining an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley and, besides the large settlement blocs, he wants to retain security areas along the Samarian mountain ridge, as well as sites of historic importance such as Hebron.

This goes well beyond anything that could be construed as being “based on the 1967 lines.”

Were Netanyahu to accept the French proposal, coalition partners like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party might quit the government, and Likud hard-liners like Benny Begin and Moshe Yaalon might challenge Netanyahu’s authority.

Still, despite these very serious obstacles, the prize for taking up the French offer was tempting: Palestinian deferment of plans to seek U.N. membership this year. There was also a big stick: If Netanyahu rejected the French offer, Juppe intimated that France and several of its European allies would vote for U.N. recognition of Palestine.

With Clinton’s nix, Netanyahu is off the hook.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has quit trying to prevent the Palestinians from obtaining the two-thirds majority they need for recognition in the 192-member U.N. General Assembly. Unlike in the U.N. Security Council, where Obama has promised that the United States will veto any unilateral vote on Palestinian statehood, General Assembly votes do not carry the force of international law.

Yet even in the General Assembly, Israel hopes to obtain as many “No” votes as possible from democratic countries. This, Israeli officials argue, would carry enormous moral weight.

Thus the European Union, with its 27 democracies, is crucial. Over the past two months, Netanyahu has traveled to Berlin, London, and Paris in an effort to convince key European leaders not to back Palestinian U.N. membership. Had he been the one to reject the French offer, his European strategy could collapse.

Netanyahu’s critics say that even if Israel wins this battle, a General Assembly vote favoring statehood will deliver the Palestinians a major diplomatic triumph and possibly trigger a new wave of Arab Spring-style protests in the west bank.

The Israeli government’s failure to take serious action to pre-empt the Palestinian U.N. move and its consequences has drawn strong domestic criticism in Israel.

The most powerful voice in recent days has been from Meir Dagan, who recently retired from his post at the helm of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.

Dagan says that Israel should have responded positively to the 2002 Arab peace initiative, come up with an initiative of its own, and pressed for a negotiated solution with the Palestinians. He also has expressed deep discomfort with the judgment of Israel’s current political leaders, hinting darkly that they might even contemplate attacking Iran’s nuclear weapons program to divert attention from the United Nations in September.

For now, a Palestinian U.N. move in September is still not a foregone conclusion.

By quashing the French plan, Clinton kept the initiative firmly in Washington, where the Americans are talking to both the Israelis and Palestinians in an attempt to create conditions for a renewal of peace talks that would render the Palestinian U.N. gambit superfluous.

In the next few weeks, in what could be the defining moment of his premiership, Netanyahu will have to decide whether to embrace a last-chance initiative to avert the U.N. imbroglio in September or to stay put and risk the potential diplomatic fallout while keeping his coalition intact.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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