While Netanyahu seems to have plenty of options for his upcoming coalition, a dark cloud is threatening his favorite tactic of stalling with the Palestinians: as respected legal scholar Ruth Gavison argues, international law clearly defines the settlements as war crimes, and pressure on Netanyahu to actually move ahead with Palestinians will mount considerably. Gavison by no means belongs to the far left, and her Zionist credentials are impeccable. Her advice is not ideologically motivated, but, as is her habit, based on careful, precise reasoning. She says that only a negotiated solution will be able to assure Israel’s legitimate security needs like the West Bank’s demilitarization, whereas a legal battle would leave Israel vulnerable on all fronts.
The question is whether Netanyahu believes that he can wriggle his way out of serious peace negotiations once again. If he has ears to listen, he will heed Gavison’s advice, particularly since his own national security advisor Yaakov Amidror, a national-religious former general has warned that Israel’s settlement activity is seriously undermining Western support for Israel.
Bibi by nature is a poker player: he likes to keep his cards close to the chest, to manipulate both his partners in Israel and abroad to his advantage, and this is what has impressed so many to the point of crowning him King Bibi. But, as has been pointed out many times, King Bibi is no more.
Netanyahu is sweating rather hard in putting together his coalition. Lapid is intransigent about drafting the ultraorthodox, and it is difficult to see him sitting together with the ultraorthodox Shas and Yahadut Hatorah parties. Bennett is in favor of annexing 60% of the West Bank; he has said that he’s not against negotiations with the Palestinians, because nothing will come out of them – but he’ll start making trouble if, God forbid (in Bennett’s terms), the negotiations will look promising. In his heart Bibi would probably be happiest to have Bennett and the ultraorthodox together, because, along with Bennett, he doesn’t believe in a solution with the Palestinians, and he sees the ultraorthodox as his long-term allies he prefers not to alienate.
But the plot is tightening: As many commentators have pointed out, Obama’s visit puts additional pressure on Bibi: he will look bad if his government looks leaning towards the extreme right. The power-relations are now very different than they were in 2011 when Netanyahu got standing ovations at Congress, dealing Obama a painful blow. Obama was weak at the time, with seemingly slim chances for reelections, and Bibi looked invincible. Now Obama is in a much stronger position, whereas Bibi has been weakened decisively in Israel’s elections.
Netanyahu may be facing much darker clouds from a different corner. Ruth Gavison is one of Israel’s most respected legal scholars, and she has worked for years on a platform of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. In an important op-ed published today in Haaretz, Gavison states in no uncertain terms that according to the Treaty of Rome signed in 1998, Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank is a war crime. She says that Israel doesn’t even have the option of annexing the West Bank or parts of it unilaterally, as it has no jurisdiction over these territories’ fate.
Her conclusion is crystal-clear: if Israel does not move quickly towards a negotiated solution, it may soon be in a very difficult position: Palestinians will be able to turn to the international criminal court, and they may create a strong case that the international community should put sanctions on Israel for the settlement activities – and these would then include the settlement blocs that Israel can no longer possibly dismantle. Hence, she argues, it should be Israel’s highest priority to seriously move towards a negotiated solution, because if the dispute with the Palestinians moves into the legal arena, Israel would be in a very weak position indeed.
The bottom line is simple: Netanyahu’s time for stalling is running out. No less than Israel’s future is at stake. By the way he will put together his coalition he will show whether he is realizing the situation’s historical urgency, or whether he will remain captive of his own character and worldview.