Analysis: Bibi the politician versus Bibi the statesman

Benjamin Netanyahu and the leader of the Israeli Labor party, Isaac Herzog, secretly flew to Cairo last April to engage in clandestine talks with Arab leaders aimed at restarting the Middle East peace process. The meeting between Netanyahu, Herzog and Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was revealed on Monday in the Israeli media.

The Labor leader later confirmed the report, arguing that a deal which could have “changed the face of the Middle East” had effectively been scuppered by Likud hardliners. At the time of the meetings, Netanyahu and Herzog were negotiating the possible entry of the Labor-led Zionist Union into Israel’s coalition government. The Israeli prime minister had secretly met Sissi, King Abdullah of Jordan and the then US secretary state of John Kerry at Aqaba two months prior to the Cairo meeting.

Netanyahu is believed to have been trying to woo the Zionist Union into his government in order to make concessions – violently opposed by right-wing parties in the coalition – on settlement-building to kickstart talks with the Palestinians. Herzog is reported to have been lobbied by Arab leaders to provide Netanyahu with the necessary political lifeline. Discussions between Netanyahu and Herzog collapsed when theIsraeli prime minister opted to bring the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party of Avigdor Liberman into government.

However, in March it was revealed that further talks between Netanyahu and Herzog aimed at forming a national unity government last autumn had produced an eight-point peace plan. In it, Israel would have formally welcomed “the general spirit” of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, reaffirmed its support a two-state solution and invited the Palestinians to begin “direct, bilateral negotiations without preconditions”. Crucially, it also pledged Israel to effectively curtail settlement-building, suggesting that any activity in the West Bank would be “in a manner that would facilitate a regional dialogue for peace and the goal of two states for two peoples”. Netanyahu and Herzog were to have released the statement at a summit with Sissi and King Abdullah.

In a radio interview yesterday, Herzog charged that the Israeli prime minister appeared to have taken fright at opposition from within Likud. “Once he brought in people from his own, they smashed the whole thing to pieces,” the Labor leader suggested. Reports in Haaretz suggest the April 2016 meeting saw Netanyahu, Herzog, their advisers and security detail fly to Cairo on a private plane. Their overnight talks with Sissi ended in time for the Israelis to return to Jerusalem by day break. The Egyptian president encouraged the pair to work together to help restart peace talks.

News of the Cairo meeting came as Tzipi Livni, Herzog’s Zionist Union ally and a minister in Netanyahu’s 2013-15 government, revealed that during Kerry’s 2014 peace initiative, Netanyahu agreed a US framework document which called for negotiations based upon the 1967 lines. Kerry’s plans were, however, rejected by the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas, Livni told the Haaretz Peace Conference in Tel Aviv this week, had made a “historic mistake” by turning down the American initiative after Netanyahu had accepted it. She also accused the Israeli prime minister of weakness: “Bibi the politician doesn’t want to do what Netanyahu the statesman knows needs to be done.”

Livni’s remarks underline Netanyahu’s delicate political balancing act. As political analyst Haviv Rettig Gur has suggested, the prime minister has long maintained a “double deflection” strategy: invoking the power of the Israeli right to fend off pressure when talking to the Americans, while suggesting to members of the coalition that he doesn’t have a “blank cheque” from the US as he tries to relieve attempts by them to force a more hardline approach.

A deal with Herzog to broaden the base of his government might appear to give Netanyahu more options on the diplomatic front, but, as Livni hinted at, it also carries considerable political risk. The prime minister knows that his long-term political survival rests on Likud’s ability to cannibalise the votes of the Jewish Home party to his right. It was his success at doing this which accounted for Likud’s come-from-behind win in the 2015 general election. Were the right-wing vote to splinter differently and Likud to shed support to Jewish Home, Netanyahu might end up no longer leading the largest party in the Knesset, even as the right’s overall strength is maintained. At that point, the centrist Kulanu party, headed by finance minster Moshe Kahlon, might switch its allegiances – Kahlon hesitated in 2015 and appears to have backed Netanyahu largely because Likud led Labor by six seats – and help a coalition containing the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid come to power.

Of course, winning re-election is not something which the leaders of Israel’s Arab neighbours need to give quite such consideration to.