Netanyahu’s Gambit –by Michael Aronson

The ploy worked, and unless Israeli President Reuven Rivlin throws a curve ball, Benjamin Netanyahu will be the Israeli Prime Minister for another term. It is almost a foregone conclusion that Netanyahu will staff the new government with a cast of characters culled from Israel’s hard right-wing that won him the election. Despite Netanyahu’s politicking over recent news cycles to roll back his Monday disavowal of a two-state solution – as of Thursday, a two-state solution is back on the table, and was never really off the table in the first place – people aren’t buying it, and international forces are already mobilizing to force the issue: Israel must work towards a Palestinian state in actual fact, or international recognition of a Palestinian state will be an actual fact.

The only way to put stock in Netanyahu’s newly contrite behavior would be if he volunteered to create a unity government with Isaac Herzog and his Zionist Union. This won’t happen. Herzog has already declined to participate in a unity government, saying, “I don’t want to clean up after Netanyahu.” Joint Arab List participation in the new government is equally out of the question. Even were the Joint List interested – and they are right not to be; their purposes are much better served making common cause with the Zionist Union in the opposition – Netanyahu tied his own hands with his racist promises to his right-wing base. Netanyahu simply cannot form a viable unity government. The right-wing would cry traitor and refuse to cooperate, putting Netanyahu right back out of a job. All else remaining equal, in light of his flip flopping on the Palestinian state, Netanyahu has guaranteed that he will betray someone. The question is, who?

The only remaining option – and interestingly enough, the best option for Netanyahu – is international intervention. Netanyahu needs someone to hold his feet to the fire in order to prove that his one-state rhetoric was just that – rhetoric. Nobody within the Israeli political system has the power to do this because Netanyahu has politically gelded or disgusted all potential domestic partners in one way or another. Netanyahu’s only remaining partner is the very international community that he has alienated, that can and will motivate itself from a position of disgust to compel Israel into peace talks. Assessing the reasonableness of the Palestinians’ negotiating voice and agenda should similarly be in international hands. All that the international community need require of Netanyahu is that Netanyahu stay at the negotiating table, and all Netanyahu needs from the international community is that it force him to do so.

Why is this Netanyahu’s ideal situation? Taking aggressively internationally brokered negotiations as our point of departure, there are two possible outcomes. If Netanyahu is forced to sit at the table and the Palestinians walk away, then Netanyahu’s Monday position on the one-state solution, for right now at least, is exonerated. Netanyahu then need only ask the Palestinians, “I am at the table. Where are you?” If Netanyahu is forced to sit through negotiations and strike a deal, then Netanyahu gets the two-state solution he says he wants, domestic and international credibility for seeing things through, and total deniability for playing along with negotiations that have become an international (read: not Netanyahu’s) responsibility. Either way, Netanyahu wins.

Should a peace deal be struck, we again have two possible outcomes: sustainable peace or ersatz peace. Sustainable peace is in Israel and the Palestinians’ best interests and is the best possible outcome. But should the new Palestinian state attack Israel – as critics of peace expect – and Israel has demonstrably carried out its international peace process obligations impeccably and in good faith, then Israel becomes fully justified in defending itself as Israel deems necessary without political fallout. The moral implications of this scenario are no longer on Israel’s shoulders: Netanyahu has pushed peace into international and Palestinian hands, while keeping Israel’s security squarely in Israel’s hands.

This analysis assumes many things. It assumes that Hamas will remain the Palestinians’ sole voice, a situation unlikely to change soon. It also assumes that the Israeli right-wing would play along with international intervention, certainly not a foregone conclusion. But ultimately, these kinds of assumptions may no longer be important. If Netanyahu becomes the Israeli Prime Minister once again, how could changes in the Palestinian and Israeli landscapes alter these maneuvers? Netanyahu’s gambit is peace with the Palestinians. If only Netanyahu knew it.