Is Bibi Striking a Different Tone On Peace?

Israeli sources close to Prime Minister Netanyahu suggest he may be changing his tune on peace negotiations with the Palestinians, writes Nadav Eyal.

A Likud minister once remarked—off the record, of course—that Israeli politicians can be categorized based on how they perceive Prime Minister Netanyahu's intentions toward the peace process. "There are those who suspect (or hope) he'll eventually pursue an ambitious peace plan," he said. "And those who already know there's no chance.”

This statement contains some truth. President Peres was absolutely sure, for most of his presidential term, that Netanyahu had changed and was ready for real negotiations. Peres became the great legitimizer for Netanyahu's government, both internally and abroad. But the honeymoon didn’t last. Eventually the Israeli president came to the conclusion that, not only is the PM set on postponing any advance in the political process with the Palestinians, he also may lead a military strike against Iran—one that might be uncoordinated with the U.S., which he thinks could be potentially disastrous. Tzipi Livni, on the other hand, acted the exact opposite way. She was highly critical of Netanyahu and suspicious of his true intentions in his early years. As a current coalition ally and new minister, though, Livni believes that Netanyahu is now serious in his peace process commitment.

The PM is indeed striking a different tone lately. He recently told Israeli ambassadors that an agreement with the Palestinians is needed so that Israel will not become a bi-national state. This was thoroughly wrapped in the usual "security first" rhetoric, though the former was what made headlines. It's an important step for Netanyahu. Because, as logical as it might sound, the bi-national scenario is primarily used only by the left wing in Israel. Using this argument to explain the peace process is highly irregular for a chairman of Likud, a party that maintains that the left tends to exaggerate and inflate the threats to Israel's democratic and Jewish character. Sima Kadmon, the political analyst for Yediot Aharonot, spoke to an unnamed senior Likud member. "Netanyahu never spoke like this before,” the MK told her. “He spoke like a lefty…rhetorically, he already crossed to the other side.”Some even detect a new urgency in the Israeli PM’s approach. "We cannot be idle," the PM said to one Israeli source. "There's the Palestinian international recognition initiatives, de-legitimacy attempts; we need to act or at least be in play with good will."

The last meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the PM was surprisingly good, according to sources in Jerusalem. They report that the Israelis were willing to speak "in concrete terms, signaling that there is no attempt to drag negotiations with the Palestinians forever." Furthermore, the Prime Minister explained in closed discussions that he intends to put forward a new referendum law, stating that any end of conflict agreement would be put to the people; he assesses that there is no majority in the Knesset for such an agreement. The opposition was quick to argue that Netanyahu is advancing a referendum in order to lay another obstacle in the way of a final agreement. Even if that's true, it’s interesting that the PM feels compelled to mask his moves by advancing a historic agreement with the PA.

Still, striking a new tone doesn’t necessarily amount to any more than just that. There's a good chance that the PM is simply fine-tuning his discourse to a newly perceived American resolve to re-open negotiations. In other words, the story might not be about Netanyahu's changed intentions, but rather about the Obama administration’s more ambitious approach—an approach that has caused Jerusalem to tread carefully in recent weeks.

The mechanics of igniting a new round of talks is complex, mainly because the PA is in desperate need of a political achievement. The freezing of settlement building as a pre-condition is no longer on the table; President Obama made that clear in Ramallah. The last thing Palestinians want is to "give" Netanyahu the legitimacy of renewed peace talks without having a public indication that they are serious.

Senior Israeli officials speaking on conditions of anonymity said that the U.S. has been floating the idea of Terms of Reference (TOR's) as a path to renewing the peace talks. The scenario is that, just before talks begin, or immediately after they are launched, both sides will send letters detailing their terms of reference for a final status agreement, touching on all issues at hand with a focus on borders and security. After considering these layouts, the U.S. administration will then present its own terms of reference. These would be relatively specific, possibly including a general timeline and modalities for future negotiation.

Interestingly, the Baker Institute at Rice University published a paper a few months ago that suggested a path for renewed negotiations focusing on America’s role. The paper was the result of work done by expert Palestinians, Israelis and Americans. Its very first recommendation for the administration was to open negotiations by setting terms of reference, since "both parties and the international community need a unified understanding of the end state that negotiations will be working toward.”

By putting forward the terms of reference for a final agreement, the Obama Administration might give the PA the commitment it’s been looking for, though it will mainly present a concrete, simple way to move forward. It will be able to navigate the boundaries for negotiating more efficiently, by clearly maintaining realistic expectations on both sides. It may also give both leaders extra leverage vis-à-vis their own constituencies, allowing them to place some responsibility for concessions on Washington's pressure. It’s an old Middle Eastern tactic.

On the other hand, this might prove to be politically explosive for Netanyahu. His agreement to enter into negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas under the banner of American terms of reference—which will probably include statements on ending the 1967 occupation—might threaten his coalition.

To be clear, this is not a speculative option as far as the Israelis are concerned. A senior Israeli official was quick to remark this week that Israel would want to maintain the right to send a list of reservations if and when the Obama administration published its terms of reference for the end of conflict agreement. The "letter of reservations" maneuver was used in the past by the Sharon government, following President Bush’s road map. The road map contained many inherent obstacles for progress, a fact that didn't cause too much distress for PM Sharon’s supporters, to say the least.

This time, Jerusalem senses that things are different. The muscular beginning of Obama's visit to Israel has been further developed by Secretary Kerry's obvious ambition for a breakthrough. From an Israeli perspective, an American outline might be fast approaching. The tones are definitely changing.