Talking to Syria is the key to managing with Palestine

Left to its own devices, the incoming Netanyahu government will take few if any political initiatives toward the Palestinians. It may, within the framework of PM-designate Binyamin Netanyahu’s "economic peace" proposal, support additional confidence-and security-building initiatives. And while Netanyahu may initiate political negotiations with the PLO leadership in order to preempt criticism, they will be even slower and less productive than the abortive talks conducted by the Olmert government. Indeed, the latter actually had sincere intentions of reaching a deal, whereas Netanyahu does not believe in a two-state solution.

In this regard, the presence of Ehud Barak as defense minister in this government will not make much difference. Barak has been skeptical of negotiations with the PLO leadership ever since the Camp David 2000 fiasco. He joined the Netanyahu government to preside over Israel’s looming confrontation with Iran.

Two variables could conceivably alter this somber projection. One is a change in the composition of the Palestinian Authority government and/or the PLO as a consequence of a Fateh-Hamas unity agreement. If a unity deal gives Hamas a share of authority over West Bank security issues or if it leads to new Palestinian elections that Hamas wins, the incoming Israeli government is liable to respond militarily against perceived new security threats on the West Bank and to cut off negotiations with the PLO and cooperation with the PA.

By the by, ongoing Hamas terrorist provocations from Gaza against nearby Israeli towns and villages are likely to trigger the same mixture of ineffective responses, economic and military, from the Netanyahu government as we witnessed in the course of the past year. After all, the identity of Israel’s defense minister has not changed.

A second key variable that could influence Netanyahu’s calculations regarding peace process issues is the attitude of the Obama administration toward the Palestinian peace track as communicated to Netanyahu by the president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special envoy George Mitchell. The new administration has already signaled that it will play a more active role in this connection than its predecessor, the Bush administration.

At a minimum, a tough American position on settlements could guarantee that no new outposts are erected, that settlement expansion is limited and that controversial Israeli projects in the Jerusalem area such as E1 and the City of David/Silwan remain frozen. As for the actual dismantling of outposts, we recall that even under the "moderate" Olmert government Defense Minister Barak "legalized" more outposts than he dismantled.

But if Netanyahu plays his cards right, it is hard to conceive of a serious confrontation between him and Obama over an Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the coming year given the weakness of the Palestinian leadership, the Hamas-Fateh unity talks and the prospect of new Palestinian elections. If Netanyahu wants to be absolutely sure of smooth sailing with Obama, his best bet is to ask Washington to take the lead in facilitating Israel-Syria peace talks.

Netanyahu, we recall, was far more forthcoming in his secret talks with Syria during his previous term as prime minister (1996-99) than in his Oslo talks with the PLO. (So, incidentally, was then-PM Barak in 2000.) Now, with his recognition of the Iranian threat as Israel’s primary strategic challenge, Netanyahu should have little trouble engaging Obama concerning the need to neutralize the Syrian link in the chain of Iran’s hegemonic designs in the Levant region, thereby weakening both Hamas and Hizballah as well. Even Obama would then have to acknowledge that one Israel-Arab peace process at a time is all Israel can handle, especially at a time when prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough are in any case poor. Besides, moderate Palestinians are the first to admit that an Israeli-Syrian accommodation would improve their lot by weakening Hamas.

If Netanyahu chooses this route–conflict-mitigation with the PLO in the West Bank, a holding action with Hamas in Gaza and an American-sponsored opening to Syria that is integrated into US-Israel strategic coordination regarding Iran–he should be able to manage with the US, Europe and Israel’s moderate Arab neighbors. He may have trouble with the right wing of his coalition, but his government will be big enough to play off one party against another.

If, on the other hand, Netanyahu opts for a hard line toward the Palestinians and rejects an American-sponsored peace process with Syria, or if he mismanages the first major regional crisis his government confronts, probably in Gaza or southern Lebanon, he could find himself at odds with Obama. And American anger at its prime minister is a transgression the Israeli public does not forgive.