Not saying “no” – That’s the name of the game

If everything goes as planned, the upcoming days will likely witness another peak in tensions within Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition. The reason, as usual one might add, is the expected release of a fourth and final group of Palestinian prisoners. Their release was set by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a precondition for the resumption of peace talks with Israel, last July.

Political threats from the coalition’s right-wing elements were already heard in recent weeks. Most notably, Deputy Defense Minister Danni Dannon publicly stated his intention to resign should the release go through. Dannon, who is currently implicated in a broader internal quarrel with Netanyahu inside the Likud, hopes that his resignation would trigger a political chain reaction which will ultimately pressure the Prime Minister to abolish the move. For now, his success remains questionable, although other Likud and Jewish Home seniors also voiced their objection, specifically to the release of convicted Israeli citizens. These militants, according to reports, are among those slated to be released on March 29.

This particular issue could indeed cause some serious hindrances for Netanyahu in his cabinet, but remains unlikely to prevent the release altogether. The first (and less significant) reason for this is political in nature. As an overall gloomy atmosphere currently surrounds the negotiations, and only assuming that no further large-scale Israeli concessions are on the table at this point, right-wing protest actions will likely remain limited to heated rhetoric, similar or slightly more vocal than in the previous rounds of prisoners releases. The incentive for them to leave the government on this background, in other words, remains rather low.

The second and more important reason why Netanyahu maintains an incentive to comply with his earlier pledge, is his desire not to be portrayed as the one responsible for the process’s failure. This consideration – not being the one saying “No” – continues to play a central role in Netanyahu’s strategy towards the Palestinians since he assumed power again in 2009. This tendency is anchored in genuine ideological reasons, but also in the premier’s striving for foreign backing and support, including regarding Iran and Syria. In this context, going back on his word runs counter to this logic. It would place the blame for the talks collapse on Israel, playing straight into Abbas’s hands.

Interestingly enough, the Palestinians are also participating in Netanyahu’s game of not saying “no”. In fact, the Palestinians are well-familiar with the implications of being labeled as responsible for the failure of the peace process, namely, a decline of political and economic relations with the West. From this perspective, Abbas’s interest is to ultimately agree to extend the negotiations period for a few months, despite the declared Palestinian objection to such prolongation. Such a concession could likely spark strong domestic opposition in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but it would likely be alleviated by the release of the fourth group of Prisoners.

If Abbas will follow this logic (which isn’t certain, given his pessimistic speech at the Arab League Summit in Kuwait), the game of not saying no will carry on in the coming months. But if history tells us something, it would be the Palestinians to break first. This has been once again highlighted in the Palestinian President’s comments during his meeting with President Obama on March 22. According to reports, the President not only rejected Israel’s demand to be recognized as the nation state of the Jewish People, but also shunned the long-standing Israeli demand that any peace deal would include a declaration on the end of the conflict.

If these positions are true, Netanyahu could already mark another future domestic political victory in his political calendar. What he should really be concerned about – both in terms of his coalition’s survivability, as well as internationally – is a scenario where Abbas stops saying no and starts says yes. In this case, the pressure will grow from both the right-wing and the more centrist parties in his coalition, pushing him to make a decisive decision. This scenario also depends, of course, on the depth of Israeli concessions to be offered by Netanyahu – a variable which for now remains largely unclear. But either way, this is where Netanyahu’s political breaking point really lies. Whether he wants to get there or not, that’s another question.

About the Author
Ron Gilran is the COO at Levantine Group, a Tel Aviv based risk-consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter @RonGilran.​
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