Stopped Making Sense

Mixed Messages From Israel on Peace Process

Can't make sense of the Israeli messages about the peace process? Neither can Ali Gharib.

Who can keep track of all the mixed signals on the still—despite all the hype—moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Just take a look at the past few weeks. First, we got news, confirmed by Israel's Foreign Minister-in-exile, that Benjamin Netanyahu's government had actually quietly frozen settlements in East Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Green Line. While less than effusive about the idea, Avigdor Lieberman gave an approving nod to American Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to jumpstart peace talks. "One should view this as a temporary hiatus," he said. "We have an interest in Kerry succeeding." Then came the bad news for East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians envision—nay, demand as the capital of their future state: the government threw its weight behind a controversial proposed law that would enable it to seize about two-fifths of Palestinian property in the eastern part of the city.

The East Jerusalem flap constitutes only one sliver of the mixed messages from the Israeli government. The more severe crisis, in this respect, revolves around not the specific steps taken by the Netanyahu government, but the government's overall positions on a peace deal with the Palestinians. The issue rose to prominence recently with a spirited Knesset debate on the subject, and questions of great import—like: Does the government support a two-state deal?—have lingered ever since. The latest installment came in an embarrassing diplomatic flub by the Prime Minister's office itself.

In the run-up to a meeting in Poland between Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart, staffers from both offices drafted a joint statement on the peace process, such that it is. But according a Haaretz report, senior staffers in Netanyahu's office were unaware of the language in the statement and were miffed to find it—gasp!—described an "urgent need for progress towards a two-state solution" and denounced "unilateral steps by either party." Netanyahu then distanced himself from the statement (settlement construction is, after all, a unilateral step). But at +972 Magazine, Mairav Zonszein pointed out that, as the cliche goes, the cover-up was worse than the crime. The explanation given by a senior Netanyahu staffer was, as Zonszein wrote, "far more embarrassing than the backtracking on a document that essentially calls for a negotiated two-state solution":

It is not the Israeli government’s position—not because the government takes the opposite position but simply because the government has no official position on the Palestinian [issue]. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position is that he supports the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state that will recognize the Jewish state, with appropriate security arrangements.

So let me get this straight: the Israeli government has no position on the Palestinian issue except that its leader supports a Palestinian state under certain conditions? Or as Zonszein put it: "Really? The government has no position on the “Palestinian issue”? Of course it does, the sentence the official follows with admits as much."

This flap comes at the same time that dozens of members of the ruling coalition joined a caucus of one-staters (and not the democratic kind, though perhaps a few of them would give Palestinians the vote). Of the ruling Likud/Beiteinu party, some 25 of 31 members support the caucus, according to a count by Joel Braunold, as do 10 of 22 government ministers and the speaker of the Knesset. The move put significant pressure on Tzipi Livni—perhaps the only member of the coalition who doesn't have to be dragged kicking and screaming to endorse a Palestinian state (even if based narrowly on Israeli self-interest). The signals here don't sound so mixed until you consider that two members of the centrist Yesh Atid party (part of the ruling coalition) joined the one-state caucus but also belong to the two-state caucus.

To top all that off, Netanyahu declared—nay, suggested that Israel might be willing to halt construction outside of the major settlement blocs where the vast majority of Israelis outside the Green Line live. That comes after 2012—the year of the settlements—in which the Prime Minister's last government oversaw a seven-year high in settlement construction. Having trouble making sense of all this? Join the club, or the caucus, or both caucuses.

UPDATE: Joel Braunold wrote on Twitter that one of his counts had been mistaken. Twenty-five, not 24 (as this post originally stated), members of the Likud/Beineinu party support the one-state caucus. This post has been updated to reflect the more accurate count.