How Kerry Put Netanyahu in a Bind

Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View writing about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs. He is a national correspondent for the Atlantic, the author of "Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror" and a winner of the National Magazine Award for reporting. He has also covered the Middle East as a staff writer for the New Yorker.
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is obviously getting somewhere in his attempt to achieve a framework agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, because all the right people -- the far-right people -- are going a little nuts.

At a security conference this week in Israel, Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party -- reacting to an earlier suggestion made by the leader of his governing coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that Jewish settlers could conceivably find themselves living under Palestinian rule one day -- asked, "Why should Jews live in Tel Aviv with Israeli sovereignty and in Eli and Hebron under Palestinian sovereignty? Open up the Book of Genesis and form an opinion. I demand that this idea be removed from the agenda."

Bennett is referring to the passage in Genesis in which Abraham buys the Cave of Machpelah, in Hebron, as a burial site for his wife, Sarah. This passage marks the first purchase of land in Canaan by the patriarch of Judaism, and it is why Hebron is Judaism's second holiest city. It is a painful idea for Jews to give up possession of Hebron to the Palestinians, who now make up most of its population.

I would point Bennett to another passage in Genesis, the one having to do with a very large flood, to help him understand why his audience of (mainly Jewish) security experts didn't react with enthusiasm to his cri de coeur. I am not suggesting that God is planning on flooding Israel. Not at all. If God is thinking about unleashing floods in the Middle East, I'm sure Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria tops his current target list.

But a flood is coming to Israel nonetheless, and the country's security establishment understands the nature of it. It's a flood of condemnation, and it has two sources. The first is that Israel, as a Jewish state, is held to a higher standard by the hypocritical world that surrounds it. The second is the widespread perception that Israel, by continuing to build and expand settlements on the West Bank, is trying to block the creation of a Palestinian state.

Censure and international isolation pose acute national security threats to Israel. As the writer Ari Shavit says, the issue for Israel is not the quality of its F-15s. The Israeli military is the strongest in the region. The issue, Shavit argues, is that the world soon won't allow those F-15s to take off. Isolation and condemnation will make it increasingly difficult for Israel to defend itself from the most serious threats. If Hamas chooses to launch waves of missiles at Israeli cities again, Israel may very well have to respond with force. But in the current international climate, Israel will find itself handcuffed by international condemnation as soon as Palestinians are killed -- and keep in mind that Hamas is an expert at maximizing casualties on its own side, in order to create a trap for Israel.

Israel, of course, has tried in the past to create a Palestinian state on the West Bank. Former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert both offered most of what Palestinian negotiators said they wanted, only to see Palestinian interlocutors walk away from negotiations. So I am not expecting miracles from Kerry or from this process. And remember -- the Palestinian Authority is weak and corrupt, and does not even control Gaza, which must be a Palestinian state in order for any plan to succeed. But the framework agreement Kerry is trying to reach could set the stage for negotiations that might just result in unprecedented security guarantees for Israel and Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, in exchange for a gradual Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank.

Kerry's energetic efforts have placed Netanyahu in a terrific bind. On one side are right-wingers such as Bennett, who will bolt from the ruling coalition if Netanyahu goes down Kerry's path. (One right-wing Israeli leader I spoke to this week argued that Kerry is not carving a path for Netanyahu, but building a plank for him to walk.) Pressing Netanyahu from the other side is a U.S. administration that appears ready to blame him for sinking negotiations, should they fail.

Netanyahu, unlike a set of government ministers to his right, including Bennett, understands that Israel's addiction to West Bank settlements is undermining the legitimacy of his country, and endangering its role as a democratic haven for Jews. This is why he appears to be taking small rhetorical steps in Kerry's direction -- floating the idea that Jews on the West Bank could remain where they are under Palestinian rule (a proposal the Palestinians, so far, at least, reject) is one way he's signaling to the Israeli public that unpopular decisions might be coming. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas also seems to be bending under Kerry's pressure, offering just this week a concession of his own: Israelis forces, he said, could remain in parts of the West Bank for as long as three years after an agreement is struck. Previously, Abbas had argued that all Israeli forces must depart as soon as a deal is made.

For Israelis, there are two ways to look at Kerry's Herculean (and often Sisyphean) efforts to outline an agreement between extremely hesitant parties. The first way is Bennett's: Much of the Israeli right sees Kerry as the enemy, trying to break the will of their prime minister in order to uproot settlers and create a Palestinian state that will become a source of endless violence. The second way is the one favored by Israelis of the center and the left: suspicion of grandiose American schemes but also a sober realization that someone needs to figure out a way to disentangle Israel from the lives of its Palestinian neighbors, and that that person may well be Kerry. The particular difficulty for Netanyahu is that he might have both of these understandings fighting it out in his head.

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(Jeffrey Goldberg writes about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffreyGoldberg.)

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