Fear Of Status Quo Fueling Talk Of Unilateral Steps


Tel Aviv — Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid thinks Israel should unilaterally declare a border and evacuate settlements.

The economic minister, Naftali Bennett, thinks Israel should do the opposite and annex parts of the West Bank.

And Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman thinks Israel should reach out to Arab states to negotiate a regional peace deal that would eventually produce a treaty with the Palestinians.

Confused? The grab bag of proposals represents an attempt in Israel to grasp at a “Plan B” in the wake of the collapse of peace talks in late April and the establishment of a Palestinian unity government.

With the U.S. blaming Israel for the breakdown in talks and deciding to work with the Palestinian Authority — over the objection of Prime Minister Benjamin — Israelis are worried about diplomatic stagnation while the Palestinians take the offensive. Even Lieberman, whose political party ran with Netanyahu in the most recent election, criticized government reaction to the negotiations deadlock.

“The interior minister is talking about continuing the status quo, and that’s just not something that’s going to work,” Lieberman said this week, referring to comments by Gideon Saar. “That’s like in soccer: if you don’t go take the initiative, eventually you give up a goal.”

Lieberman is hoping that long-secret contacts between Israel and Gulf countries over their joint opposition to Iran will shift into peace talks, though that would require those countries to abandon long-held resistance in the Arab world to normalizing ties before finding a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Lieberman’s diplomatic plan and the proposals of others from his cabinet colleagues are filling an Israeli diplomatic vacuum, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said he’s mulling alternatives to the talks, has yet to chart a way forward.

“[The plans] are filling a vacuum because the prime minister doesn’t have anything,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli-American public opinion expert. “He doesn’t have a plan, and he doesn’t have a direction. [Palestinians] are showing movement and Netanyahu is Dr. No.”

Barak continued: “Netanyahu is leading from behind, and not driving. He’s being led by the Palestinians and the Americans and he’s just letting the waves determine the way the way it goes for him.”

Barak believes that status quo of continued settlement expansion throughout the West Bank is dangerous, and that Israel is going to face increased isolation abroad.

“You have to ask yourself: Are we going over the settlement cliff?”

Many around the prime minister from his own Likud party don’t think so, and they are challenging the conventional wisdom that holds that the status quo is a bad thing. Saar, the interior minister, told the annual Herzliya Conference, the global meeting on national security, that because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn’t look resolvable in the foreseeable future, “the status quo is a better alternative than changing the status quo.”

According to Ofer Zalzburg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, Netanyahu is afraid neither of the status quo, nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ campaign for international recognition, nor threats of isolation.

“The Palestinians at least for a year have had a diplomatic initiative, and Israel was mainly reacting. Netanyahu will continue this tactic,” Zalzburg said. “As long as there’s a Palestinian leadership that isn’t going to rock the boat, Netanyahu will muddle through, and focus on other things.”

Zalzburg said that Netanyahu’s advisers aren’t worried about isolation either. While they expect an erosion of support in Europe over the diplomatic impasse, they know Israel enjoys strong support in U.S. public opinion and want to leverage Israeli technology exports as a bridge to forge new trade relations with Asia and South America.

Despite this, Netanyahu is now facing calls from the dovish and hawkish wings of his cabinet to take unilateral steps that would take Israel in two opposite directions.

The opposing proposals reflect an Israeli unease that the government has failed to dictate the course of relations with the Palestinians, and instead allowed Abbas to get upper hand on international recognition for a Palestinian state.

“There’s an anomaly with the continued unclear situation with Judea and Samaria, and the feeling that it’s creeping under us, and that we need to do something,” said Dan Meridor, a former minister in Netanyahu’s government, using the biblical terms that refer to the West Bank.

Lapid, speaking Sunday at the Herzliya Conference, became the first Israeli cabinet member to revisit the concept of unilateral withdrawal, saying that Israel should prepare itself to carry out partial military pullbacks and razing isolated settlements in the West Bank. Only afterward would Israel conduct negotiations on core issues with the Palestinians, the finance minister said.

“It’s about time that Israel should decide what its borders are,” Lapid said. “There’s no reason to continue avoiding the need to draw the future borders of the State of Israel.”

Netanyahu swiftly dismissed the Lapid’s plan as a recipe for the kind of response that occurred following the withdrawal from Gaza, namely more rocket fire.

Bennett, whose Jewish Home party represents Israelis settlers, has been pushing annexation for several years, but with the collapse of U.S.-backed peace talks in April, the provocative proposal is being taken more seriously for the first time since Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo peace agreement in 1993.

Netanyahu is not likely to back that plan either: he opposes annexation because he fears Israel will become a binational state with 2.5 million more Palestinians, and unilateral withdrawal would likely bring down the coalition.

Shlomo Brom, a fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, a Tel Aviv University think tank, said the push for unilateral solutions is a logical outcome after the failure of a negotiated resolution.

Brom said Israelis worry that about rising costs of the status quo: friction with allies in U.S. and Europe over continued Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, vulnerability to international boycotts and a Palestinian diplomatic offensive at the United Nations.

“Many people think that status quo isn’t acceptable,” Brom said. “Our government says an agreement is not feasible, so the only conclusion is unilateral steps.”

Israelis are still waiting to hear about Netanyahu’s next move.