Countering US narrative, some Israeli sources insist PM negotiated sincerely

Netanyahu spent countless hours trying to figure out how to make a deal possible, Jerusalem insiders insist, though he never budged on core convictions

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

With Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations at a dead end, analysts and pundits are busy determining who’s to blame. For Palestinian officials, the issue is clear: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not interested in a deal, hence he was unwilling to negotiate sincerely. Opposed to Palestinian statehood, he merely went through the motions, never really intending to make substantive concessions, certainly not those needed for an agreement, they argue.

“Unfortunately, Israel never gave the negotiations a chance to succeed,” Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said last week, after the nine months allotted for the talks elapsed without a tangible result.

A few days later, Israelis read that senior US officials also blame Israel for the failure, and especially the government’s refusal to freeze settlement construction.

“There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure, but people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth – the primary sabotage came from the settlements,” one unnamed US official (said by some to have been special envoy Martin Indyk) told Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea on Friday. “The Palestinians don’t believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state when, at the same time, it is building settlements on the territory meant for that state. We’re talking about the announcement of 14,000 housing units, no less. Only now, after talks blew up, did we learn that this is also about expropriating land on a large scale. That does not reconcile with the agreement.”

Still, according to some Israeli sources familiar with the peace talks, Netanyahu was genuinely considering all the issues raised by the negotiators, weighing earnestly the pros and cons of every idea brought to his desk. While always putting Israel’s security interests first in his mind, these sources insist, he wholeheartedly asked himself how things could be sorted things out in a way that would allow Israel to sign a final-status deal with the Palestinians.

Rather than hoping to somehow survive the talks politically and focusing on how to win the blame game afterwards, these sources say, the prime minister spent several hours every day pouring over the matters raised in the negotiating room, asking himself which positions Israel could allow itself to adopt in order to advance toward an agreement.

Netanyahu keen on a peace deal? That same Netanyahu who for years campaigned against a Palestinian state, never publicly committed to negotiating on the basis of the 1967 lines, and never ceased to expand Jewish settlements? Would this man eagerly search for ways to establish the state of Palestine?

The answer to those questions may be found in a speech Netanyahu gave one year ago: “The purpose of the future agreement with the Palestinians is to prevent the eventuality of a binational state and to guarantee stability and security,” he told top officials at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on May 1, 2013, three months before the ill-fated talks commenced.

In late January, he reiterated this position: “We do not want to annex the Palestinians as citizens of the State of Israel and we do not want to control them,” he said at a conference in Tel Aviv.

This Sunday, in explaining his new initiative seeking to anchor Israel’s status as a Jewish state in the country’s Basic Laws, Netanyahu said that separating from the Palestinians in order to prevent a binational state “has a certain logic.” As opposed to the pro-settler elements in coalition, the sources said, Netanyahu no longer dreams of a one-state solution. He knows that Palestinian statehood is inevitable, yet still tries to get the best possible deal for Israel.

While unwilling to compromise on his core convictions — especially regarding security arrangements and Jewish state recognition — Netanyahu understands that a two-state solution is required if Israel wants to remain a Jewish and democratic state. Notably, he and his inner circle remained silent during last week’s “apartheid” debate, which was triggered by US Secretary of State John Kerry’s warning that a “unitary state” would turn out either “an apartheid state with second-class citizens” or an Israel without a Jewish majority.

Nonetheless Netanyahu stressed this week, if we’re talking about two nation-states for two people, it needs to be guaranteed that Israel is recognized by the Palestinians as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

Just as much (if not more) than the announcements of additional Israeli housing units beyond the Green Line — something the Palestinians knew would not cease during the negotiations — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to even discuss such recognition is to blame for the lack of progress, the sources said.

Even the unnamed American officials who spoke to Barnea acknowledged Abbas’s obdurate position on this issue. “We couldn’t understand why it bothered him so much. For us, the Americans, the Jewish identity of Israel is obvious. We wanted to believe that for the Palestinians this was a tactical move — they wanted to get something (in return) and that’s why they were saying ‘no.’ The more Israel hardened its demands, the more the Palestinian refusal deepened.”

Critics of the prime minister assert that he invented the demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a ploy to derail the negotiations. Netanyahu, these critics argue, knows the Palestinians will not accept the demand, as they claim it would force them to accept the Zionist narrative, relinquish the right of return and compromise the standing of Arab citizens of Israel.

But the formulation proposed by the Israeli negotiating team does seek to answer such concerns. As reported by The Times of Israel last week, Israeli negotiators were willing to work with Abbas and his team on the wording of the desired declaration, toward wording that would have described the Jewish people’s and the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination in precisely equivalent terms, and would have also included phrases to guarantee the rights of Israel’s Arab minority. The Palestinians refused to even consider this.

It is Netanyahu’s profound and unshakable belief that without Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people a peace agreement is fundamentally flawed. (Three out of four Israeli Jews share that view, some polls suggest.)

After Netanyahu for the first time accepted, in principle, the idea of a Palestinian state in his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech, many people were skeptical about his real intentions. If he really sought a two-state solution, skeptics mused, he would stop building in the West Bank and earnestly negotiate a peace treaty.

But despite the prime minister’s tough rhetoric, the ongoing settlement expansion and the suspension of talks after Fatah reconciled with Hamas, the Israeli sources stressed that Netanyahu was willing to sacrifice a lot to get the negotiations off the ground — and also to keep them going. Firstly, he agreed to release 104 terrorists in four phases, a decision for which he continues to draw heavy criticism, most acutely from bereaved families. (He did this to avoid a revolt by his far-right coalition partners, who would have voted down a settlement freeze.)

In March, Netanyahu went from minister to minister to convince them to agree to a deal that would include the release of Arab-Israelis in the fourth and final phase, in addition to some 400 additional prisoners, and an almost-freeze of settlement construction in the West Bank, in return for the release of Jonathan Pollard and a Palestinian commitment to continue to negotiate.

A few years ago, no one would have believed that Netanyahu would pay so steep a price for the mere right to have Tzipi Livni sit down with Erekat.

When all is said and done, whether Netanyahu acted sincerely or not in his pursuit of an agreement over the past nine months, the future of the peace process doesn’t solely depend on him right now. After Israel suspended talks last week because of Abbas’s Fatah reconciliation deal with Hamas, there are two main scenarios:

One, plans for a Palestinian unity government, headed by technocrats but backed by Hamas, might fail to materialize, due to unbridgeable difference between Fatah and Hamas. That has occurred in the past and could easily happen again, theoretically allowing Israel and the Palestinians to continue forging a deal to extend the talks. But there are few signs that Abbas, for one, has any interest in doing so.

Two, if a unity government does arise, and Hamas expectedly does not disavow its commitment to Israel’s destruction, Jerusalem will refuse to continue talking, and the death of the latest round of US-brokered peace talks will be plain for all to see.

Kerry and his team might then decide to publish their formula for a permanent accord, and let the sides take it or, far more likely, leave it — and live with the consequences.

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