A Dangerous Play for Time
Current upheaval in the Arab world has even reached Syria – but Israel's actions could yet push it into further international isolation. By Avi Primor, former Israeli ambassador to Germany
When Benjamin Netanyahu was first elected as Israeli Prime Minister in 1996, even then his reputation was not one of peacemaker. There was a distinct danger that his election would push the country into global isolation.
But he very quickly succeeded in convincing not only US and European politicians of his positive intentions, he also won over Arab heads of state with whom Israel had ties at the time – the King of Jordan, for example, the Egyptian president, and also heads of state in Morocco, Tunisia and the Gulf States. Even the Palestinian President at the time, Yasser Arafat, gradually became more confident in his dealings with Israel.
The big disappointment
But in the end, Netanyahu was a disappointment to everyone, including the majority of his supporters in Israel. Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl once said during a private conversation that he had received Netanyahu four times in Bonn, and conducted further talks with him at international conferences.
Netanyahu always made so many promises, said Kohl. And the former chancellor believed it was his duty to encourage the Israeli leader to keep those promises. But unfortunately, Netanyahu did nothing.
In early 2009, Netanyahu assumed the position of Prime Minister for the second time – and again he promised his negotiating partners around the world openness with respect to peace talks and a readiness to compromise.
In June 2009, he gave a noteworthy speech in which he expressed support for a two-state solution. He advocated and even initiated direct negotiations with the Palestinian government and accepted a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction. He also spoke out publicly in favour of peace negotiations with Syria.
The Israeli view
But all this eventually turned out to be nothing more than a cover for upholding the traditional policies of the Likud Party: in other words to make no real concessions that might be indispensable for any kind of peace. This has an unsettling effect on the wider public, but not on most Israelis. They actually take a rather positive view of the situation in Israel today.
The most significant problem, security, doesn't appear to be an issue at present. There are only isolated terrorist attacks such as recently in the West Bank, and apart from Iran, neighbouring countries currently in political and social flux do not appear to represent any kind of danger.
The economic situation has rarely been as good as it is now. The global economic crisis has barely affected Israel, and the steep growth of the country's GNP is only comparable with that of the largest emerging economies in Asia. And the unemployment rate is also going down.
No country is an island
That the world constantly finds fault with Israeli policies is nothing new for the Israelis. They think they can manage just fine regardless. But unlike most of his compatriots, Netanyahu definitely appreciates that Israel has never been so internationally isolated before and that this isolation is being further heightened by ongoing events and upheaval in the Arab world, changes that have even begun to affect Israel's neighbour Syria.
Netanyahu understands just how dangerous this situation can become, after all Israel is a small country that is extremely dependent from the international community. But can he get himself out of this tight spot with empty words alone?
Abraham Lincoln said that you can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time. Has Netanyahu also come to this conclusion? He has recently begun promising a "surprising" new peace initiative.
He told German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who recently gave him a piece of her mind during a telephone conversation, about an important speech he was preparing. He said he would like to give the speech in May at the US Congress, where his Republican friends had just won a majority.
Limited room to manoeuvre
The first thing Netanyahu must do is impress the urgency of the situation upon his voters. To this end he is now adopting a tone that his predecessors Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, both of them originally from the rightwing nationalist camp, also began to use at some point. A bi-national state, he says, an Israel that does not renounce the occupied territories and that would at some point annex them along with their Arab population, would be a catastrophe for the Jewish state.
Israel cannot afford to do whatever it wants in the occupied territories, because pressure from the outside world is becoming too dangerous.
Up to now, Netanyahu has repeatedly maintained that he wants unconditional direct talks with the Palestinians. Nevertheless, he does not want to present the Palestinians or the Americans with the fundamental characteristics of his vision for peace.
He is not willing to talk about the key points of a peace treaty – for example about the final border between Israel and the future Palestinian state. He is not able to present a plan, because he knows that either the entire international community or his party and coalition would take umbrage at his ideas.
Simply playing for time
Just before his political downfall, Netanyahu's predecessor Ehud Omert came close to a detailed peace agreement during his negotiations with the Palestinians: there was talk of a Palestinian state based on the borders of 1967 following a certain exchange of land. Such an agreement would however mean clearing most of the Jewish settlements.
For Netanyahu, such a solution is not acceptable, for both ideological reasons and in view of coalition considerations. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is only too aware of this, and refuses to negotiate with Netanyahu for that reason. Just like the rest of the world, Abbas fears that Netanyahu only wants to conduct inconsequential talks with the aim of winning time and grooming his international profile.
So will the promised new speech signify an about-turn in Israeli politics? Is Netanyahu ready this time to cross the Rubicon, or does he again simply want to win time, during which he tries to fool all of the people? The mood in Israel is one of scepticism.
© Süddeutsche Zeitlung/Qantara.de 2011
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp