"The puzzle is getting clearer and clearer, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters accompanying him on Monday on his way back to Washington, following his 12th visit to Israel.
Kerry is already the constant traveler. At the beginning of next week he will land yet again at Ben-Gurion National Airport. "You are with me a lot on these trips," he went on to tell the reporters who boarded the plane with him. "Anywhere in the world, with any leader I meet, everyone asks me: "Say, that conflict over there between Israel and Palestinians, is it solvable?"
Kerry tried telling the reporters that he bothered kicking off the new year with another work meeting between Jerusalem and Ramallah because in his view there is a chance of success. Just a little more effort, not to mention a lot more pressure, and he will strike a framework to extend the negotiations deadline for another year.
"Imagine it: 25 Arab countries will recognize Israel. The Palestinians will have a state. These benefits aren't worth the effort? That's why these benefits must be made clear to the sides," said Kerry.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro has joined Kerry on his trips and endeavors. "Kerry has heard from Netanyahu and from Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] things that no one has heard from them before," said Shapiro. "I'm not allowed to tell," he goes on, dodging the land mines deployed by the inquisitive reporters.
The red lines
There were three significant diplomatic developments this week: Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's speech; Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett's red lines speech; and the oppositionist bloc forming within the Likud over the Jordan Valley.
Lieberman explained that there would be no better offer than Kerry's proposal. It will mean a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, with land swaps. Lieberman emphasized the land swap aspect: In Wadi Ara, southeast of Haifa, and the area northeast of Tel Aviv known as the "Triangle," and threatened that without a territory exchange that sees the transfer of large Arab-Israeli population centers to the Palestinian state -- he will not support the deal.
Anyone who is familiar with the negotiations says that any agreement will include the removal of isolated settlements. However way you slice it, this means the eviction of some 100,000 settlers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at the Likud faction meeting that he would not remove settlements. Netanyahu is prepared for a deal right now; regarding the removal of settlements he will be ready only in a few years.
Bennett's speech sounded like words of goodbye from the government: No more games, he said, but what he really meant was that the game is over. The Habayit Hayehudi chairman stressed that he would not sit in a government that will accept a deal based on 1967 lines and will not stand idly by if it is decided to divide Jerusalem. Bennett essentially called on the prime minister "not to divide Jerusalem," just as Netanyahu warned Peres back in the day.
Accepting the 1967 lines means splitting Jerusalem and giving up "the Mount of Olives -- where Menachem Begin, Rabbi Kook, and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda are buried -- and giving up the Western Wall, the Temple Mount and the Old City," he declared. "What will history make of the leader who would cede Jerusalem? How will it remember the first leader in Jewish history who dares to do that? And what's more, to do it voluntarily? In every wedding we say 'If I forget you O Jerusalem may my right hand wither' -- is such a concession worth the temporary goodwill of the world?"
Bennett's comments explain that if a peace deal trends in that direction it will mean more than divorcing the government, it will mean an entire segment of the population filing for divorce from the game of Israeli democracy. Bennett, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense cabinet who is supposed to be up to date on matters, summarized: "These are crucial times for the State of Israel. These are fateful days."
Behind closed doors Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid says that in this process he "backs the prime minister." A diplomatic agreement completely and irrevocably severs the alliance between Lapid and Bennett, thereby creating a new alliance: Lapid-Netanyahu.
Justice Livni and chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni and Lapid are maintaining silence. They are pulling Netanyahu in the direction of a deal, toward "historic decision." What do Netanyahu, Lapid, Livni, Bennett and Lieberman agree on? For now, they are insisting on the same principles: An Israeli Jerusalem that includes the Old City; not allowing Palestinian refugees to return to Israel; preserving the large settlement blocs and greater Jerusalem.
Between history and politics
So is Netanyahu moving toward conceding the principles he vowed to uphold? If he does so, politically speaking, what will he have left on the day after? While he does plan to ratify any agreement with a national referendum, and every poll shows a 70 percent majority in favor of a deal in which the basic outline is already known -- he runs the risk of losing his party on the day after the referendum. On the day after, the Left certainly won't vote for him, and he will be persecuted by the Right. In the Likud he will be accused of being a right-wing prime minister who abides the left-wing's policies.
Many in the political system do not understand why the prime minister got involved in the current negotiations, unless he already knew he would take an historic step, one that would open a new world in U.S.-Israeli relations, the Arab world and the European Union and will create a sophisticated diplomatic weapon against Iran. Otherwise, why did he release terrorists, move forward on an arrangement that he doesn't believe in and act against his own principles, against his party's principles?
Two figures who see themselves as fighting for leadership of the Likud in the future, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar, paid a visit to the Jordan Valley last month and made declarations about Israeli sovereignty. Ya'alon came with the weight of the security considerations. Sa'ar came with the political punch.
The law proposed by MK Miri Regev (Likud) for the annexation of the Jordan Valley, which passed the approval of the Ministerial Commission for Legislation, was heavily backed by Sa'ar in the ministerial debate on the matter. "I supported the law proposal because I thought that at this point in time it is right to send a clear message on the issue of the Jordan Valley," he said this week.
Sa'ar admits that he is "far from being fully up to date" about the negotiations, but says he holds discussions with the prime minister, including on diplomatic matters. "I supported Benjamin Netanyahu in the last elections and before, in very trying times in his political career, in the belief that he would be able to uphold Israel's interests in the diplomatic and international arenas."