As Israelis take to streets, Netanyahu shifts on 67 borders

jerusalem  |  In the never-ending game of diplomatic chess played by Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week made a new move to try to outflank the Palestinians.

On Aug. 2, he said that Israel is ready to use the pre-1967 lines as a rough starting point for discussion of a Palestinian state — if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state and back down from their plan to petition the United Nations for statehood recognition in September.

At his weekly Cabinet meeting Aug. 7 in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu articulates his new position on pre-1967 lines. photo/jta/flash90/haim zach

Analysts are divided over whether this constitutes a real shift for Netanyahu or whether he’s merely trying to call the Palestinians’ bluff and gain the upper hand in the international arena, and at home.

On the one hand, merely articulating this new position appears to be a significant shift for the prime minister, who initially described those borders as “indefensible” when President Barack Obama suggested in May that the pre-1967 lines — with agreed land swaps — should serve as the starting point for talks.

“It’s a very serious move,” said Bar-Ilan University political scientist Eytan Gilboa, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “For him it’s quite a concession to make because after Obama proposed his platform for renewing negotiations, Bibi rejected it. So he has changed his tune.”

Another, domestic element may be propelling Netanyahu toward peace talks with the Palestinians: the growing social movement that has seen massive demonstrations over the high cost of living in Israel, particularly housing prices. In the past few days, more than 250,000 Israelis have turned out to protest across the country, and many are camped out in tents on Tel Aviv’s leafy Rothschild Boulevard.

If Netanyahu wants to deal with the protests that have grown with each passing week, he “has to draw the one card that no one is expecting, the card that can outflank his opponents on every segment of the political spectrum,” columnist Bradley Burston wrote last week in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. That card? An immediate return to peace negotiations, Burston wrote.

“This is the time,” Burston wrote. “His party and his government are laying back, uncharacteristically silent, waiting for him to take charge, make a move that is bold enough to meet the challenge of the nation’s broadest social movement in memory.”

Shmuel Sandler, another researcher at Bar-Ilan’s Begin-Sadat Center, said the protests in Israel have prompted Netanyahu’s coalition partners to rally behind him because they don’t want to fall prey to early elections. Such elections could strengthen the prime minister’s hand in peace negotiations by giving him enough flexibility to make some headway with the Palestinians despite right-wingers in his coalition who are wary about concessions.

It’s still not clear whether Netanyahu’s Aug. 2 statement represents a substantive shift or a tactical move. Tactically, the appearance of being flexible on the issue of the borders could help build international pressure on the Palestinians — to return to the negotiating table and to halt their statehood bid at the United Nations.

“This way,” Sandler said, “Bibi can’t be blamed if something does happen in September” at the United Nations. “He can’t be blamed for being too stiff and inflexible.”

Mark Heller, an expert at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, says Netanyahu is merely trying “to wiggle” between the parameters Obama laid out in May and Netanyahu’s longstanding position that talks with the Palestinians cannot be resumed with preconditions.

“The only way we can find out definitively if he’s serious is if [P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas] calls him on it,” Heller said. “Either way, he has to be put to the test.”

In the meantime, Netanyahu’s statement has distracted attention from Abbas’ precondition to negotiations: a total freeze on construction in the settlements.

Still, the Palestinians are determined to go to the United Nations. To that end, Netanyahu has spent much time in recent months trying to convince European leaders to abstain from or oppose the Palestinian U.N. statehood bid.

Without European backing, a vote in favor of Palestinian statehood supported mostly by Muslim and developing countries would be seen as lacking in moral authority.

Ultimately, Gilboa says, that may not make enough of a difference to deter the Palestinians.

“Rational thinking is not their strong suit,” he said. “The U.N. move is complicating an already highly complicated situation.”