Friday, August 28, 2009

Why Netanyahu Reminds me of a Canadian Rock Song

There's a song I like by Canadian singer Matthew Good called: The Future is X-Rated which has the lines:

"Ambition, ambition's a tricky thing. It's like riding a unicycle over a dental floss tightrope over a wilderness of razor blades. Ambition can backfire."

Since it seems that for the first time in a long while direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are about to begin, Mr. Netanyahu's situation reminds me more and more of these words.

His ambition, as he expressed in his foreign policy speech, is peace for Israel, but he's sure going to have a hard time on his unicycle.

First, consider US demands for a settlement freeze. In London, Mr. Netanyahu recently met with Obama's Middle East Peace emissary Mitchell. In these talks, Netanyahu offered to freeze Israeli settlement activity for 9 months, with the exception of ongoing projects, projects necessary for normal life (such as schools) and the guarantee that the PA also take confidence building measures and that Israel be given a clear "out" from the freeze if things don't work out. Much of this is actually similar to the status quo where Israel has not approved any new projects in the last while, but ongoing projects continue.

Mitchell doesn't seem to have accepted this proposal as the meeting resulted in little more than a short press release and an article from the Guardian suggesting that Israel is trading the settlements for the US getting tough on Iran, a proposition that Netanyahu flatly denies.

Despite the settlements not being "frozen," a previous precondition of his for talks to take place, Abbas, the new President of the Fatah party leading the Palestinian Authority has agreed to meet with Netanyahu as soon as this September, in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting. If these talks take place, Netanyahu has noted that a new "core issue" (which usually referred to the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian Refugees, etc.) would appear on the agenda: that of Palestinian acknowledgement that Israel is a Jewish state. He also hinted that Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region have a role to play. For their part, Palestinians are playing the whole thing down, saying that Abbas has not dropped his preconditions at all and that these will not be negotiations, but just a talk. 'A rose by any other name...' Let them call it a boy scout jamboree, it's better than nothing!

Even as the US pushes for a settlement freeze, and the Palestinians maintain that it's a precondition for talks, numbers from a recent poll seem to show that many Israelis seem to be opposed to a settlement freeze in exchange for Arab states normalizing relations with Israel. These numbers, which seem monolithically opposed to freezing settlements put Netanyahu in a tough spot. (I also question the methodology of this poll. It seems the questions asked are rather leading and designed to produce a certain answer. It's also unclear where the 500 some participants came from. Were they all settlers, for example?)

Not only is he under pressure--according to this poll--from the people not to freeze settlements even as the US pushes him to freeze them, but one of his own, hand-picked, "superstar" members of the Knesset, Hotovely, held a conference of other like minded MKs to pressure Netanyahu not to freeze the settlements and to reject the idea of a Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, after being given a tour of illegal settlement outposts by Peace Now, other MKs from Labour, also part of the coalition, are threatening to rebel and potential cause the coalition to fall if labour MK and defence minister Barak cannot meet his promise to remove these outposts in the next few weeks.

So that wilderness of razorblades must be looking pretty scary to Mr. Netanyahu. The US, Palestinians, and Labour all push one way while the Israeli public (ostensibly), and his own party push the other. Keeping them all happy will be quite the trick and what he chooses to do and which of these actors will show flexibility in their positions first, is hard to tell.

I would not put any money on it, but my guess would be that the threat of losing his government to a Labour revolt as well as pressure from the US and the possibility of receiving no deliverables of any kind if he doesn't meet with Abbas will be the force that's hardest to resist. On the other hand, he is a Likud party member and the Prime Minister of a democracy, doesn't he have an obligation to these constituents as well?

Makes one wonder why anyone would want to be Prime Minister of Israel.

Noam Sheizaf has an interesting post on these latest developments here. His perspective is worth a look.

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