x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Kerry's first task is to identify Netanyahu's true intentions

The Israel government must accept and support the notion that there should be an independent sovereign Palestinian state on land occupied in the 1967 war.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, is back in the Middle East this week, partly to renew his effort to launch new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Despite his best efforts - and five visits in three months - prospects for a breakthrough remain bleak.

The Palestinian side remains in disarray (more on that later), but Mr Kerry's real challenge, I believe, will be to get Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be more honest about his real intentions. Being forthcoming has not been Mr Netanyahu's strong suit. He has long been known to friends and foes alike as a dissembler and a manoeuverer.

During Mr Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, then-president Bill Clinton found dealing with him to be quite maddening. I recall the comment of Uri Avnery, the Israeli peace activist and former Knesset member, upon hearing that Mr Clinton had invited Mr Netanyahu to negotiations: "Mr Netanyahu will either say 'no' and not go; or he will say 'yes' and not agree to anything; or he will go, agree, and not implement what was agreed upon."

Mr Avnery was right. Mr Netanyahu chose the third option.

With his return to the prime minister's office, in the early days of President Barack Obama's first term, Mr Netanyahu found himself being pressed by the popular new president to agree to a two-state solution. This was a tall order for Mr Netanyahu, who once, as Israel's spokesman at the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, refused to refer to the Palestinian delegation by that name, and insisted on referring to them as "Jordanians".

But Mr Netanyahu bowed to Mr Obama's pressure and delivered a speech in which he appeared to accept the two-state outcome. But his subsequent behaviour spoke otherwise. After a few skirmishes with Mr Obama over settlements and a major confrontation over the US president's declaration that new talks should be based on the 1967 borders with "land-swaps" - which Mr Netanyahu won, with help from a fawning US Congress - the peace process stalled.

The president's second term began with a renewed push for talks, among warnings that with the growth of settlements, time was running out on the possibility of creating a viable Palestinian state.

Mr Netanyahu has maintained the appearance of a willing partner, provided that the Palestinians come to the table "without preconditions". But there are signs that these appearances are deceiving.

Just last week Mr Netanyahu's gamesmanship was exposed following the issuance of a joint statement after he met his Polish counterpart. The statement spoke of "the urgent need for progress toward a two-state solution" and said both sides should avoid "unilateral steps … not helpful for achieving a sustainable peace".

Sensing that this would be interpreted by his far-right governing coalition as a repudiation of new settlement construction, Mr Netanyahu quickly dissociated himself from the statement.

In the past two weeks, members of his coalition have made it even more clear how challenging Mr Kerry's mission will be.

Danny Danon, the deputy defence minister, declared bluntly that "there was never a government discussion, resolution, or vote about a two-state solution ... if you will bring it to a vote ... you will see forces blocking it within the [Likud] party and the government".

And Naftali Bennett, the minister of economy, told a settlers' meeting that "the attempt to establish a Palestinian state in our land has ended". He went on to liken the Palestinian presence to "shrapnel in the butt" - something uncomfortable that one learns to live with, rather than risking an operation to remove it.

Mr Netanyahu, facing a storm of criticism for these comments, restated his commitment to a "negotiated solution where you'd have a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish state" - adding, as he does, that this arrangement would have to include Israeli control over air, water and land rights, security in the Jordan Valley, and control over all of annexed "Greater Jerusalem" etc. This is his interpretation of "negotiations without preconditions".

Mr Danon's observation that a Palestinian state is "not the policy of the government" is deeply troubling. Who is Mr Netanyahu fooling, his cabinet and government, or the US?

As noted above, problems abound on the Palestinian side. But their fractured polity and other dysfunctions flow from living for decades under occupation. Given their circumstances, the progress Palestinians have made is significant.

What a peace agreement requires is not that the Palestinians first perfect their state. What must come first is an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Security arrangements will, of necessity, accompany such a withdrawal, but these will require international peacekeeping forces - something the Israelis have always rejected. Peace will also require an international effort at investment, reconstruction and resettlement, and support for institution-building. All of this will take time and significant effort.

But first, the Israelis have to accept and support the notion that there should be an independent sovereign Palestinian state on land occupied in the 1967 war. And this, it appears, is a goal to which, the Netanyahu government has not yet committed itself. Finding out if this Israeli government has any intention of ending the occupation will be Mr Kerry's challenge.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa