Installing hawk as peacemaker, Netanyahu lowers hopes and raises eyebrows

The PM says he’ll seek a ‘diplomatic settlement.’ But he’s heading a rightist coalition and has just put Silvan Shalom, a public opponent of Palestinian statehood, in charge of peace efforts

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

File. Silvan Shalom, left, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Ariel Jerozolimski/Flash90)
File. Silvan Shalom, left, speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Ariel Jerozolimski/Flash90)

Foreign policy advisers in Western capitals must be scratching their heads.

Most of them doubt that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu means it when he says that he supports Palestinian statehood in principle. While Israel asserts that Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas won’t take positions that would enable a deal, and that Hamas would take over the West Bank if Israel pulled out, many around the world blame Netanyahu for the current stalemate. And he’s just built a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox coalition, most of whose members oppose a two-state solution.

But he’s certainly been sending out a curious mix of signals of late.

On the one hand, he’s publicly professing a desire to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

“We will continue to promote a diplomatic settlement,” Netanyahu said Friday, at his new government’s first cabinet meeting. The coalition’s guidelines, he noted, explicitly state that Israel’s 34th government “will advance the diplomatic process and strive to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians and all our neighbors.”

An explicit commitment to Palestinian statehood was conspicuously absent from those comments, but they were clearly meant to signal that Israel was ready to sit down and negotiate. And carefully leaked reports from Netanyahu’s private conversations in recent days suggest that he wants to restart talks in the near future.

On the other hand, Netanyahu also continues to make hawkish pronouncements and appointments that appear to confirm the suspicion that his new government is disinclined to make the concessions needed for Israel to meet its side of any bargain. Indeed, some of his recent statements – for example on the future of Jerusalem — put him on collision course with the international community. “Jerusalem won’t be divided again,” Netanyahu said Monday, prompting bitter Palestinian responses. “It won’t go back to being a frontier or a border town.”

Netanyahu’s appointment Monday of Interior Minister Silvan Shalom as responsible for any peace talks with the Palestinians puts another major question mark over the government’s peacemaking intentions. Shalom is a staunch supporter of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and has repeatedly and vocally opposed the two-state solution. “We are all against a Palestinian state, there is no question about it,” he said to his fellow Likud leaders in 2012.

“Shalom’s appointment is further confirmation that Prime Minister Netanyahu has abandoned even the pretense pursuing a two-state solution,” the dovish J-Street lobby declared in a statement Monday.

Others believe that Shalom, who was also tasked by Netanyahu with managing the US-Israeli strategic dialogue, is a pragmatist who can adapt to his new position. But one thing is clear: Tzipi Livni he is not.

While many in the international community, from US President Barack Obama on down, question Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution, they believed that Livni genuinely sought to reach an agreement and were relieved when she was put in charge of peace talks in the last government. Shalom, a former foreign and finance minister, will have a much harder time convincing anyone of his desire to see peace negotiations to a successful end.

The newly minted chief peace negotiator said warily Tuesday that “it takes two to tango.” But asked whether Netanyahu is ready to dance, answered: “I’m certain that he is.”

Shalom also reportedly said earlier this week that his appointment demonstrates Netanyahu’s desire for another effort at talks and takes the air out of accusations that Israel refuses peace. Shalom was further quoted as saying that he was “ready to review every subject in every area, from the most weighty issues of the United Nations to smaller matters such as managing joint day to day life.”

Again, though, a clear commitment to Palestinian statehood was missing. Those foreign policy experts around the world must be querying how exactly Netanyahu and Shalom are going to “promote a diplomatic settlement” if they are intent on avoiding uttering the words “Palestinian state,” loudly declare that a united Jerusalem will forever remain under Israeli sovereignty, and assert that Israel will continue building in all parts of the city.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, for a start, has made clear she seeks an explicit pledge of support for the eventual goal of Palestinian statehood. The “status quo is not an option,” she said Monday, three days before she was to arrive in the region in a bid to prod Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiation table.

The Americans have likewise made plain that they expect clear, unmistakable signs that Jerusalem remains committed to a two-state solution. Even if the route back to direct talks is difficult, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said Monday, “it is critical that we keep the two-state solution alive and viable for the future.”

It is clear to politicos and observers on all sides that a speedy resumption of substantive peace talks is not in the cards. Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leadership is currently interested in antagonizing their constituencies by talking to the enemy.

In this respect, critics of Shalom’s appointment to head Israel’s negotiating team can breathe a sigh of relief: As long as there are no peace talks, Silvan Shalom can’t sabotage them.

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