In Israel, mixed signals on prospect for peace with Palestinians

As the United States seeks to revive Middle East peace talks, the coalition government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become a babel of voices whose members issue contradictory statements, sometimes hourly, declaring that negotiations with the Palestinians are:

A. On track.

B. Dead.

C. Baloney.

Even the most ardent observer of the Middle East peace process might be right to be puzzled, given how confused the Netanyahu government has appeared about what it wants — or what it wants to say out loud.

Israel has a parliamentary system of government, and Netanyahu’s ruling coalition is composed of five political parties, so infighting is a given. But dissension from top government members boiled over this week when Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party and the third most powerful figure in the coalition, declared a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians — a solution that Netanyahu says he supports — a “dead end.”

On Monday, days before Secretary of State John F. Kerry is scheduled to return to Israel for the fifth time in four months to push for peace, Bennett said at a conference of Jewish settlers: “The attempt to establish a Palestinian state in our land has ended.”

“Never have so many people spent so much energy on something so pointless,” said Bennett, a member of Netanyahu’s inner security cabinet. Bennett urged the settlers to “build, build, build” in all of Israel and in the West Bank, part of what the Palestinians envision as their future state, and he likened the Palestinians to a piece of shrapnel.

“I have a friend with shrapnel lodged in his backside,” Bennett told the crowd. “They told him they could operate, but he would remain handicapped. So, he decided to keep on living with it.”

The remarks drew a quick rebuke from Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, tasked as Netanyahu’s lead negotiator with the Palestinians, who assured her fellow members of parliament that talks would begin soon.

Less than a week ago, she threatened to quit the government unless Netanyahu clamped down on critics of the two-state solution.

“We will not remain in the government without a peace process,” she said.

Other members of Netanyahu’s government who support negotiations for a two-state solution also denounced the comments from Bennett and other hard-liners.

“This is an attempt to sabotage the efforts of Kerry, Netanyahu and Livni,” said Environment Minister Amir Peretz, according to the Los Angeles Times. Peretz urged the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.

Palestinian officials also expressed alarm at Bennett’s words.

“These are serious comments to come from a government minister,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Monday. “The Israeli government is following a clear settlement policy, stalling for time and reneging on previous commitments. . . . It’s time for the international community to get involved.”

A statement released Tuesday by the Palestine Liberation Organization Negotiations Affairs Department blasted the disunity in the Israeli government, saying comments made by senior ministers over the past few days prove the “commitment to settlement expansion.”

The mixed messages began this month when Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, a rising star in Netanyahu’s Likud party, declared the country’s governing coalition in no way united on the creation of a Palestinian state.

“Look at the government: there was never a government discussion, resolution or vote about the two-state solution,” Danon said in an interview with the Times of Israel newspaper. If there were a vote, he asserted, government members would vote no.

Danon’s comments embarrassed Netanyahu, who since 2009 has expressed support for a peace agreement that delivers two states living side by side in peace and security.

The prime minister’s press office was bothered enough to take the unusual step of issuing a statement on the Sabbath, saying Danon’s comments did not represent the government’s views.

A day later, in his weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu told ministers “that the people of Israel elected us to focus on the bigger picture and not on petty politics, and that is what we will do.”

That suggestion was not heeded. In the past 10 days, at least five additional ministers have offered their own, usually differing, opinions on where the government stands on the peace process.

Deputy Minister Ofir Akunis, who is considered a close associate of Netanyahu, said, “The Palestinians themselves are not ready for a state,” nor are they partners for peace.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told a gathering in Washington on Friday that Kerry’s peace plan had “failed so far” and that the Arab League’s peace initiative — a centerpiece of Kerry’s efforts to revive talks — was a bunch of “spin.”

As the debate continued, Netanyahu went off message. On the morning of an official state visit to Poland last week, his office released a statement saying that he and his Polish counterpart had agreed “on the urgent need to advance towards a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict” — so far, so good — but added that “unilateral steps by either of the sides are not useful to achieving a lasting peace.”

The latter wording echoes the language used by Washington when it criticizes Israel for building settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

Netanyahu withdrew the statement and said bungling underlings prematurely issued the communique.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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