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Bibi’s Choice

How Israel should handle pressure for a Palestinian state

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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Here again the outcome is uncertain. Under the Palestinian Basic Law, Fayyad’s time to form a new cabinet has already run out, been extended, and run out again, and Abbas must now ask someone else to attempt to form a government. But the Basic Law has been ignored a thousand times and may be again, and Abbas has good reason to worry about any kind of unity government—for if there is unity and cooperation, what is the excuse for delaying parliamentary and presidential elections, both of which appear to inspire no enthusiasm among Abbas and his old cronies in the Fatah party? 

So on the international scene and within Palestinian politics, Israel cannot be entirely sure what it will soon face. Much more important, no one can say with assurance where things are heading in Cairo, Amman, Beirut—or now even Damascus. Many Israeli officials therefore counsel waiting, or “watchful waiting,” or “letting the dust settle,” or a dozen other terms that all mean “Israel should do nothing.” This is hardly a moment for bold steps, they argue. 

For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the problem of predicting in whose hands the key Arab states (and their armies) will be tomorrow morning is compounded by politics in Jerusalem and Washington. In Jerusalem, any bold move could destroy his coalition, leading Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party to bolt. Lieberman may want to do so soon anyway, wishing to act before his expected indictment this year on a variety of financial charges. Numerically, those Knesset votes could be replaced by the greater number of seats (28 versus 15 for Lieberman) held by the Kadima party, a natural partner for Likud should Netanyahu decide on some initiative, but most Israeli observers think this a doubtful outcome. Netanyahu and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni have been attacking each other regularly in the past year, so personal relations are shot. And with Netanyahu now two years into his term, Livni may wonder why she should rescue him and be his foreign minister when in another year she might be his successor as prime minister instead. Some analysts argue that if Netanyahu undertook a big initiative Livni would have to support it, perhaps from outside the government: She could say she would not use votes of confidence to bring him down as long as some agreed plan was under way. But it doesn’t take a genius to see why Netanyahu fears being in that position, his political fate dependent on a party and a person—even if she is serving as his foreign minister—itching for his collapse. So Netanyahu is thinking. In early March his spokesmen talked of a major speech soon, perhaps delivered in Washington, but then backed away from the plan. A big, bold step is attractive to Netanyahu, but not one that turns out to be politically suicidal.

“Bibi is torn,” one adviser to the Israeli government told me. “He understands the camp saying the momentum is strongly against Israel now, saying U.N. action to recognize a Palestinian state against Israel’s wishes could be dangerous. He understands pressure will grow, isolation may grow, boycotts in Europe may grow. He knows we could be a lot worse off in a year than we are now. But he knows what he wants to prevent, not what to do to prevent it. He has no real policy. He’s just like Obama.”

And Obama is a critical factor here. Entirely missing is a relationship of confidence between the United States and Israel that might foster boldness or risk-taking. In a situation in late 2003 where negotiations were dead in the water and diplomatic initiatives he viewed as dangerous were surfacing, Ariel Sharon acted: He decided to get out of Gaza. But in reaching and implementing that decision he had the full support of George W. Bush, with whom he carefully negotiated a series of supportive statements and pledges. 

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