It begins tonight in Washington with expectations as low as they can get. Better late than never, better talks than violence, better low and realistic than high and delusionary. Last week, two surveys of Israeli public opinion revealed that 70% of Israelis don’t expect peace talks to end with peace – 69% according to a Haaretz poll, 73% according to an Israel Hayom poll. The second poll also found that “almost 85 percent of Israeli Jews are against the release of terrorists who have committed deadly attacks as a means of facilitating the upcoming peace talks”. Here’s some proof that polls don’t always dictate the government's policy: after much debate, the Israeli cabinet approved the very problematic release of some 104 prisoners – murderous convicted killers – to facilitate the talks. Clearly, the cabinet did this for just one reason: not to spoil John Kerry’s moment of triumph, not to be the naysayer. Clearly, such motivation and such a vote are an invitation for more pressure – as the Palestinians are less worried about spoiling things with the US and are in a much more defiant mood. Thus, I believe it will not take long before Israel has to put its foot down and demonstrate to the American side that there’s a limit to the number of times it can be pushed around just for the sake of having negotiations.
Why release the prisoners? First, let’s take a look at Netanyahu’s options. The Palestinians, and consequently the Americans, clarified early in the talks that getting the Palestinian side to the table will require some demonstration of good will from Israel, and some tangible achievement with which to strengthen President Abbas’ position as he sends his emissaries to the talks.
Netanyahu could have gone for one of three options:
- Releasing the prisoners- The most emotionally difficult and morally indefensible option. Also the least popular with the public.
- Settlement freeze- The Palestinians wanted it, and the Israeli public would be more tolerant, but Israel has refused this demand for so long that caving on this would look really bad.
- A 1967 line statement- Going back to negotiations with the two parties announcing in advance that the goal is a Palestinian state based on the 1967 “green line”.
We know he chose option A, and the question is why. There are two answers: the approving answer, and the critical answer.
Approving: Yes, it is heartbreaking and enraging to see those cold-blooded killers released. But Netanyahu prefers to pay this emotionally high price rather than pay a price that has strategic meaning. Agreeing in advance to the freeze or to the 1967 line would have much graver consequences than releasing some killers – it would weaken Israel’s position in negotiations, and would weaken the only card it has as it talks to the Palestinians, the land card.
Critical: Yes, agreeing to the 1967 line would be a strategic mistake. But mixing the line and the freeze is a political trick. In fact, Israel has already agreed to a freeze in the past and it had no serious ramifications. A temporary freeze could have been the wiser choice – and Netanyahu didn’t go for the freeze because he wasn’t sure if he has the votes necessary to approve it. In other words: you aren’t happy with the release of murderers? Blame the coalition, blame hawkish Likud members of Knesset and the Habait Hayehudi party.
Take a look at this poll:
Do you support the release of 80 prisoners as a gesture? 77% against 23% in favor. Do you support freezing settlement construction? 55% against 45% in favor.
Netanyahu clearly decided to go against public opinion in his choice – why he did that is for you to decide.
Some politics: Tzipi Livni was right when she realized that joining the Netanyahu coalition is her only chance of playing a significant role, and she also rightly identified Netanyahu’s need for her. With Ehud Barak gone, Dan Meridor gone, and the Likud taking a right turn, Netanyahu has very little to show for when it comes to international forums. His Finance Minister Yair Lapid is a. a novice with no experience in diplomacy, b. has never showed much interest in this subject, c. too strong politically to be trusted by Netanyahu, d. too busy being Finance Minister. So he can’t be Netanyahu’s sane emissary to the world. Livni might not be the PM’s best buddy- she might still want to succeed him (one would hope she has realized by now that this isn’t likely to happen, ever)- he might not have the highest respect for her skills, he might still need to send her with a babysitter (Yitzhak Molcho) – nevertheless, Livni is what he's got. Alienating her could be costly, and this gives her some leverage with him.
Is Martin Indyk bad news for Israel? That’s the buzz in the Israeli right. He wasn’t the greatest Netanyahu fan, and he has many friends in Israel’s left-of-center camp. The fact that Kerry chose Indyk is barely surprising or shocking, though. There are few Washington people with knowledge and understanding of the nuances as vast as his, and of those even fewer who could be acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians (and to Kerry – one has to remember that the Secretary wants someone with whom he feels comfortable). In fact, there’s reason to suspect that the list of available negotiators who are experienced, knowledgeable, acceptable, included only one name – Indyk’s.
There will be a lot of talk in the coming months about the support of both peoples for the “two state solution”. And indeed, when asked about such a solution, the outcome, time and again, is mostly positive:
Nearly two-thirds of Israelis — 62 percent — support a diplomatic solution based on two states, while only 33% oppose it, the survey said. In contrast, 46% of the Palestinians said they were against the idea, as opposed to 53% who replied that they were in favor of it.
This means little. The two state solution Israelis have in mind and the one Palestinians have in mind isn’t the same solution. The solution that pollsters have in mind is different from both – they are thinking about the American version of the two state solution.
So, it means little – but it still means something: that the two peoples realize that thus far no better solution to the conflict has been presented. The publics might be clinging to a mirage, but they rather have this mirage than the alternative solutions offered by violent radicals, kooky zealots, and impractical naives.