Benjamin Netanyahu has expanded his government coalition by including Yisrael Beiteinu and appointing Avigdor Lieberman, the party’s leader, as defence minister. The Israeli prime minister also agreed to some of the party’s other demands, the most important of which is to provide retirement benefits for Russian immigrants who have spent most of their working lives in Russia and the former Soviet Union countries.
Netanyahu’s crisis with the Jewish Home Party has been overcome through an agreement with its leader Naftali Bennett on a formula which ensures that Cabinet members are informed of all security information by means of a secretary to brief ministers. By agreeing on this, Netanyahu has proven, once again, that he is a clever politician in terms of his management of domestic policies and in dealing with his opponents and allies alike.
With just 66 Knesset members, the government is still relatively unstable and open to blackmail from any member of the coalition. The new structure provoked a number of questions regarding Netanyahu’s intentions, as there has been a regional and international desire to see the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog join the government and begin a serious political process leading to a political agreement with the Palestinians, or at least make a breakthrough in the political process that would relieve some pressure on regional states. Other countries in the region have been busy with other matters, most notably the Syrian and Libyan crises and the refugee issue. These countries favour Herzog’s group — regarded as more “moderate” — especially given their demands of freezing settlement activity and beginning the negotiations process with the Palestinians on the basis of the old-new regional initiatives.
It seems as if Netanyahu’s first task after bringing some stability to his government is to promote it as “moderate”, given that the world thinks of it as extreme far-right and racist. He confirmed that he is willing to negotiate based on the Arab Peace Initiative which, in his opinion, “includes positive elements that can help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians.” He did, however, say, that the start of such negotiations must reflect the dramatic changes that have occurred in the region since the initiative was proposed in 2002. He also said that the goal of the negotiations is to reach a two-state solution for two peoples, and added praise for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s initiative and his proposal to push for peace and stability in the region.
Netanyahu’s skill lies in the fact that he chose to talk about peace in the presence of Lieberman at a joint press conference; the new defence minister reiterated the prime minister’s statements regarding the two-state solution and Al-Sisi. He stressed that he agrees with everything Netanyahu said. When both men agree on the same discourse of political moderation, and both lead the government accused of extremism, that is a strong message aimed at the regional countries and international community to dispel the doubts and fears about Israeli policy under their leadership. Lieberman in particular made an attempt to reassure everyone that he would adopt “a responsible and balanced security policy.”
Their statements will push regional and international parties to put pressure on the Palestinians and Arabs to give Netanyahu another chance and restart bilateral negotiations, perhaps under Egyptian auspices. The Palestinian leadership will find it hard to bypass the principle of negotiations with the Israelis, despite the fact that there are doubts and the feeling that Netanyahu will try to buy time yet again simply to alleviate the international isolation closing in on Israel. He may have changed his position to the outside world, but has not changed its substance; he is on record as saying that the Arab Peace Initiative is no longer aligned with the current circumstances.
In his latest statements, therefore, Netanyahu has focused on the “dramatic changes in the region since 2002”, which is code for telling the Arabs that they must amend the initiative in a manner that responds to Israel’s demands. Indeed, leaks from the Israelis claim that there are Arab states willing to amend the initiative with regards to Palestinian refugees and their right of return; the issue of land swaps may also be included, as it gives Israel some flexibility to continue settlement expansion with a view to the land being annexed at some time in the future. This is despite the fact that the Arab League and Palestinian leadership have formally rejected the idea of amending the Arab Initiative. However, public positions do not necessarily reflect the confidential letters and positions that are hidden from the public gaze.
Netanyahu may gain some time before his policy is exposed and he returns to the position that he has never actually left. He may surprise us by moving forward in the direction of an agreement, but at that point, he will be forced to change his coalition partners to those of the Zionist Union and Herzog, who is desperate to be a minister in the government. He will undoubtedly be able to pass any decision in the Knesset and even with public opinion, when he goes for a historic solution. Then Netanyahu’s real intentions will be put to the test, along with all the parties dealing with his relatively new political discourse.
Translated from Al-ayyam, 1 June, 2016
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.