In his latest visit to Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized the point that he will not succumb to pressure. "Israel has come under various pressures," Netanyahu said, "and we deflected them in the face of the unprecedented storm and unrest of the region." This may be the case with respect to Secretary of State John Kerry's Mideast peacemaking efforts, yet when it comes to the unrelenting pressure of the settlers and their supporters in parliament and in Netanyahu's government, the Israeli premier has capitulated time and again.
Pressure is Netanyahu's Achilles' heel. A risk-averse politician, he takes action when he is squeezed to do so. During his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s, he signed and implemented the Hebron Protocol and Wye River Memorandum, in accordance with the 1995 Oslo Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but only after being pressed hard by the Clinton administration to do so. In his second term, a reluctant Netanyahu endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state and implemented a 10-month settlement freeze -- a response to President Obama's early demands.
Obama is currently trying to get Netanyahu, now in his third term, to institute another settlement freeze in an effort to save the present peace talks from collapsing. It is an uphill battle because it is domestic politics that largely drives Netanyahu's policies. More often than not, it is Netanyahu's natural allies on the right who succeed in getting the prime minister to cave in to their demands. In his book The Missing Piece, longtime Mideast envoy Dennis Ross depicts Netanyahu as "riveted on his political base rather than on the needs of the [peace] process" -- a description that is as fitting today as it was in the 1990s.
Netanyahu's penchant for bending to the dictates of his base is, in no small measure, due to his weak and irresolute decision-making style, about which I have written elsewhere. At the same time, one must also not forget Netanyahu's hawkish worldview and his ambivalence concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general and a two-state solution, in particular -- he is focused on Iran, not on the Palestinians. Moreover, a large number of his ministers and political associates -- disproportionately, religious nationalists -- are hawks on steroids. As a former political aide to the prime minister told me, Netanyahu is the most liberal person in his inner circle.
The settlers' lobby and their supporters in the government and in parliament are ideological, passionate, determined, and well organized. They also are politically far-right, opposed to any solution to the conflict with the Palestinians that involves ceding land they regard as rightfully theirs. Earlier this year, in a nod to the settler lobby, the prime minister told Israeli journalists that he had "no intention of evacuating any settlement or uprooting any Israelis." Following recent reports that Netanyahu is prepared to temporarily freeze settlement construction in the West Bank to keep the talks going, twenty-one Members of Knesset -- including some from Netanyahu's Likud party -- sent the prime minister a letter stating their opposition to "any kind of settlement freeze." Netanyahu hurried to assure his ministers that the issue of freezing settlements would not be discussed during his trip to Washington.
This is not the first time hardliners have organized to undercut Netanyahu's ability to make concessions in the peace talks. Last fall, seventeen members of his coalition, including five deputy ministers, called on him to refuse any deal involving territorial compromise.
Thus far, Netanyahu has given them little to worry about. A new report by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics reveals that settlement construction in the West Bank increased by 124 percent in 2013. To drive home the point that settlement construction will continue unabated, International Relations Minister and Netanyahu ally Yuval Steinitz declared this week that freezing settlement building was "not an option."
Netanyahu also struck a defiant tone in Washington, making demands of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, such as repeating his insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state, yet he neglected to provide a hint of what kind of compromises he would be willing to make on settlements and other major sticking points in the peace talks.
Without sustained, countervailing pressure on Netanyahu from the highest levels of the administration and its supporters in Congress, Netanyahu can expect to yield only to his right-wing base, scuttling the peace talks.