Netanyahu Isn't in Charge Here

The confession of weakness was startling. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was explaining to the BBC why Israeli-Palestinian peace talks should continue despite Israel's refusal to extend its freeze on new building in West Bank settlements. People had to understand, he said, "Israel doesn't have a way to stop this building totally."

Barak is the civilian official directly responsible for the Middle East's strongest military. He's also responsible for governing the West Bank, since it's under military occupation. Nonetheless, he says he just can't stop settlers from revving up the cement mixers. Since settlement constructions are intended not merely to provide homes but also to set Israel's borders and reduce its diplomatic options, Barak is also admitting that the government has ceded its monopoly on foreign policy.

Only a bit more subtly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed his own weakness on Sunday. It was the last day of the 10-month building moratorium, which Netanyahu had refused to renew despite the high risk of sabotaging the peace talks. But Netanyahu at least wanted to avoid in-your-face displays of new construction -- like the public groundbreaking planned at the settlement of Revava that evening. Netanyahu reportedly asked the organizers -- settlement leaders and Knesset backbencher Danny Danon of his own Likud Party -- to keep a low profile. It didn't help. At Revava that evening, cement was poured, several thousand people cheered and released balloons, and Danon proclaimed, "The building freeze is over." So much for party discipline.

Actually, there are two kinds of weakness here -- and a more general lesson about diplomacy. One kind of weakness is that the government is afraid to enforce the law and its own decisions against settlers. Through aerial photography and visits to settlements, the Peace Now movement's tracking effort found that construction of more than 450 housing units began illegally during the freeze. The Israeli government surely could have located the same violations. It has police and troops available to stop them, but it is unwilling to confront the settlers. This is part of an old pattern: In a recent Supreme Court hearing about the government's failure to demolish buildings put up on private Palestinian land back in 2005, the government's attorney said the court shouldn't interfere in enforcement priorities. Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch responded, "There are no priorities, because nothing is ever implemented."

The other kind of weakness is political: Netanyahu is not a prime minister who inspires his own party. He's not someone who can declare a bold policy and sweep the public behind him. Meanwhile, the most ambitious of the Likud's backbenchers are determined rightists, eager for a chance to defy the prime minister, get media play, and appeal to a party central committee where settlers are overrepresented.

Last year, under American pressure, Netanyahu agreed to a short-term freeze. Because he excluded buildings that had already been started, construction has only gradually slowed. (Figures from Israel's official Central Bureau of Statistics -- which don't include illegal construction -- show that at the end of June there were 1,980 housing units under construction in the settlements, compared to 2,790 a year ago.) Extending the freeze now could make more of a difference -- and the settlement lobby knows it.

One might think that Netanyahu has resolutely resisted pressure from Barack Obama and a host of other world leaders, that he has stood up to Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas' threat to leave the talks unless the freeze is renewed. One might think he is unmoved by the likelihood that Israel will take the blame if the negotiations fail. That's an optical illusion. In reality, he has simply given in to stronger pressure at home. On the freeze issue, the Likud Knesset delegation has more leverage than Obama does, and the settlers -- the most mobilized group of activists in the Israeli electorate -- have more leverage than Danon does. As for Barak, he could take his Labor Party out of Netanyahu's coalition. But then he'd be an opposition member of Parliament, instead of defense minister. This is not a career change that Barak will choose voluntarily.

That optical illusion has wider implications for diplomacy. When president meets prime minister, it's easy for each to think the other speaks for his country. When negotiators sit at the table, their job seems to be convincing their counterparts across the table. Yes, everyone knows about domestic pressures -- Netanyahu doesn't make a secret of his coalition problems. But I suspect that inside the meetings, such issues seem abstract and distant. After all, you are talking to the representatives of a government, to the people who set policy.

To the extent that the leader in question believes in the need to negotiate and in his own ability to create a mandate for the deal he reaches, the negotiating-room illusion is a minor distortion. But Netanyahu doesn't believe in the peace process, even if he does believe in the need for good relations with Washington. In large measure, he is merely the representative of whatever constituency or constituencies are doing the best job of leaning on him back home.

Abbas is right that negotiating while settlements grow mean that he's constantly giving up ground -- not in the metaphoric sense but actual land. So far, he has delayed leaving the negotiations. It's possible that the administration will find a stopgap compromise this week that will allow everyone to save face and keep talking.

But what remains inexplicably missing from the Obama administration's peace effort is speaking to the Israeli public. Ehud Barak actually does have the authority to stop settlement building. Netanyahu could extend the freeze; he might even be capable of reaching a peace deal, if he were sure his political future depended on it. For that to happen, Obama needs to persuade more Israelis that a deal will make them safer, that it will make their children less likely to face combat as soldiers and more likely to stay in the country after their service. Obama has to negotiate with normal Israelis, because that's where the power lies.

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