Serving as a senior adviser to Shimon Peres, a remarkable Israeli prime minister and later a cherished president, I noted a quality unique to politicians: when forced by circumstances to act contrary to preference, a politician is better than we mere mortals at identifying: 1) what is the absolute minimum required to get everyone off his back, and 2) when is the last moment to act.
A case in point is Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. His inaction in the face of gathering storms suggests that he is convinced that he knows the answers to these questions better than most. Let’s hope that he is right. For if wrong, the consequences can be tragic.
Consider the volatile five-ring circus he operates in:
Jerusalem: Any Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif provocation by extremists on either side can rekindle rounds of violence, also damaging Israel’s relations with Jordan and Egypt and potentially igniting the entire Muslim world.
West Bank: Palestinian Authority security agencies have been trying to restrain violence. But recent incidents where security officials turned their weapons on Israelis coupled with concern that the Tanzim (Fatah’s armed militant faction), like the youth stabbers, will no longer heed PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ pleas for non-violent resistance may unleash a wave of violence far bloodier than the current “lone wolf” daily attacks.
Gaza: Israel’s defense establishment identifies conditions similar to those which precipitated the last war and is preparing to respond should Hamas again miscalculate and opt for a spectacular terror act – primarily in or out of the West Bank – in order to divert public attention from its failures to address basic needs and force Arab states to come to its rescue. Israel’s reaction will be far more decisive than Hamas anticipates and Gazans will be its tragic victims. Israelis will not be spared either.
International arena: European Union’s labeling of settlement products, angry exchanges with the UN Secretary General; British Prime Minister Cameron’s blunt rebuke of Israel’s construction policy around Jerusalem; dire public warnings from senior US officials about Israel’s Palestinian policy; reports of Washington considering making public the parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian deal – whether in a presidential speech or a US security council resolution, or both – illustrate that patience with Netanyahu’s status quo policy is running thin. Vice President Biden’s statement in Jerusalem earlier this week that Israel cannot stop violence only by force, accentuates that point.
Israel’s coalition: Overseeing a majority of 61 in a 120 seat Knesset – where every bastard is a king – is demanding, especially when a Knesset minority of 38 opposed to a two state solution constitutes a majority in his coalition.
So what can a Prime Minister do – especially one widely viewed as being driven more than his predecessors by concern for political longevity – to prevent one or more of these rings from detonating a major crisis?
Even before his Washington trip last November, talk around the Prime Minister suggested that he has in his pocket an initiative which could arrest the negative trends in all five. Washington and Jerusalem insiders intimate he would have acted upon returning from Washington (as he all but promised Secretary of State John Kerry), but concluded that it was too early to rock the boat.
According to these sources, this initiative comprises four core elements and enumerates specific actions to take when the last moment to act is upon him:
Renewed commitment to the two state solution, possibly via a qualified positive response to the Arab Peace Initiative, but definitely – as nothing else would pacify the international community – via a qualified settlement freeze where no construction is undertaken outside the major settlement blocs or in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
Stabilizing Jerusalem by strict enforcement of the status quo on Temple Mount and in the Holy Basin, in cooperation with Jordan, and by increased investment in East Jerusalem’s health, education, urban and welfare needs.
Stabilizing the West Bank to reduce tension and prevent further escalation by enabling Palestinian security forces to restore law and order to areas they are presently prohibited from deploying to; allowing Palestinian infrastructure development in Area C (60 percent of the West Bank which is under Israeli civil and military control); removing the threat of home demolition from some 200,000 Palestinians by legalizing thousands of houses built without permits in Area C, and more.
Rehabilitating Gaza by emergency solutions to the water crisis (presently available for several hours every other day); increased electricity supply (presently available for 8-12 hours daily); reduced unemployment (presently at 64% among the youth) by permitting exports, renewing Israeli outsourcing from local industries; solving the salary crisis where civil servants have not been paid in full for months, and issuing work permits in Israel.
Each element could calm some of these four areas of concern and jointly do enormous good in the territories, region and international arena.
But they would wreak havoc on Netanyahu’s coalition. The “gang of 38” will not sit idly by while the reason they joined politics is trashed. Some will opt to bring the government down by leaving the coalition. Others will embarrass the Prime Minister by repeatedly depriving him of a majority of Knesset votes, making governing impossible.
Enter the fifth component of Netanyahu’s “pocket plan,” the one he holds closest to his chest and is the toughest for him to act upon: a coalition reshuffle. The initial four offer a reasonable scenario for the Zionist Camp’s joining a coalition. Indeed, its constituency may not forgive its leaders if their turning down such an offer were to prevent measures which promise to reduce violence and keep hope alive for an eventual two state solution.
Which brings me back to the basic equation: At what point will Netanyahu conclude that the last moment has arrived when not acting is riskier to his political longevity than acting? When he has to pull this initiative out of his pocket and take these steps?
Many observers point to November. In Israel, budget deliberations traditionally trigger coalition unrest, exacerbated this year by the Prime Minister’s slim majority. In the US, after the elections President Obama will be free of domestic, partisan constraints and able to crown his Middle East legacy with the “Obama Parameters” for a Palestinian-Israeli peace. A balanced American approach, whether presented via a presidential address or a UN Security Council Resolution, or both, would benefit the peace process, whenever and however it’s revived in the future, but unleash political storms in Jerusalem and Ramallah in the near-term.
Moreover, the other three bombs ticking on Netanyahu’s desk may not wait until November: escalating violence from Gaza, in the West Bank or in Jerusalem.
Any of these circumstances could force Netanyahu to act. Those in Washington and Jerusalem who wish to avoid the tragic consequences of inaction and want him to move should take note.