LONDON — The headlines in the Western media all said more or less the same thing when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled the plug on the latest round of the “Middle East peace process” on Sunday. “Netanyahu urges (Palestinian leader Mahmoud) Abbas to continue peace talks as building freeze expires,” they said, or “Netanyahu appeals for calm as freeze on settlements runs out.” Et cetera.
The implicit message was that this moderate, reasonable man is still pleading for peace, even though circumstances beyond his control are making it harder to achieve. Let us hope that the Palestinians can find it in their hearts to be equally reasonable and peace-loving.
But it was Netanyahu who agreed to the building freeze 10 months ago, because the Palestinians were understandably refusing to negotiate over the future of their land while Israelis continue to colonize it — or maybe just because the U.S. government, which agrees with the Palestinians about this, was twisting his arm very hard.
Netanyahu was well aware that Abbas could not continue to negotiate if work on expanding the Israeli settlements resumed, because Abbas has said so publicly and repeatedly.
All last week, President Barack Obama begged Netanyahu not to wreck the talks by canceling the freeze. Yet Netanyahu has chosen not to extend it. What does that tell us about his interest in a peace settlement?
Apologists for Israeli policy point out that the freeze always had that 10-month, self-canceling proviso built into it, and that Netanyahu’s coalition government would almost certainly collapse if he extended it now.
They are probably right about that, as the coalition includes extreme rightwing and settler-dominated parties that are dedicated to perpetual Israeli control over much or all of the occupied Palestinian territories.
But it was Netanyahu who set that 10-month deadline in the first place, allegedly to placate the more extreme elements in his coalition. So it is presumably they who are forcing his hand now. Poor “Bibi,” obliged to choose between peace and power. How hard it is to decide.
No, that’s not quite right either. If Netanyahu’s current coalition broke up, he could fairly easily create another in which parties that genuinely support the peace talks, like Labour, took the place of the extremist parties that stormed out. So, to answer the question posed three paragraphs ago: No, the evidence suggests that Netanyahu is NOT interested in a peace settlement with the Palestinians.
Once you say that, of course, you immediately have to qualify it. Netanyahu would be very interested in a peace deal in which the Palestinians just rolled over and agreed to his terms. He has never specified exactly what those terms are, but judging by what he has said in the past and by the company he keeps, they would amount to almost unconditional surrender.
Netanyahu wants permanent Israeli control of the land on which most of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank stand, and Palestinian assent to the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem. There would be no return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in what is now Israel. And the Palestinians would have to create a government tough enough to enforce those terms on an outraged population, but not strong enough to threaten Israel.
The Israeli prime minister knows that any Palestinian leader who agreed to such draconian peace terms could not survive — so in practice he is not very interested in peace talks with the Palestinians. He must LOOK keen for peace, however, since that is what his American senior partners expect. That explains all the essentially meaningless diplomatic and PR activity of the past year.
The first time Netanyahu led the Israeli government, in 1996-99, he faced a similar problem. The Oslo peace accords had been signed quite recently, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who made that deal, had just been martyred by an extreme rightwing Jewish assassin. There was a strong backlash against the far right in Israel, and a serious danger that a land-for-peace deal was in the offing.
Netanyahu might not even have won the 1996 election if Palestinian extremists, hoping that he would destroy the Oslo deal, had not given him a boost by launching a vicious terrorist campaign against Israeli civilians.
And it worked: Having won the election, Netanyahu successfully stalled for three years on fulfilling the Oslo terms. By 1999 despair had set in among Palestinian moderates, and the “peace process” was effectively dead.
Netanyahu is in power again, and there is absolutely no reason to suppose that his agenda has changed since then.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.