Last week, Benjamin Netanyahu showed up at Bar-Ilan University, the right-wing institution where he first spoke in support of a Palestinian state in 2009, and delivered a widely watched address that critics said proved he isn’t serious about a peace deal. (“Four years on, Netanyahu returns to Bar Ilan more hawkish than ever,” declared Ha’aretz’s Barak Ravid, summing up the general reaction.)
What struck me, however, was not the right-wing talking points that were in the speech, but the one that was glaringly absent: Netanyahu’s traditional reference to Jerusalem as the indivisible capital of Israel. This was not an isolated oversight. As I noted in July, Netanyahu has not mentioned united Jerusalem publicly once since his January re-election.
The Israeli journalist Amir Tibon has a new column out on the popular Israeli news website Walla: “Worried on the right: Will Bibi divide Jerusalem?” (it’s in Hebrew, but J.J. Goldberg has a good summary at The Forward). Apparently, Tibon and I aren’t the only ones to have noticed the omission. Some on the hard right have begun to fear their worst nightmares about Netanyahu may come true.
In a vacuum, of course, the omission could be read differently—as a strategic decision by Netanyahu not to embarrass the U.S. during peace talks—but it comes just a couple weeks after Likud Knesset member Tzachi Hanegbi, who is very close to Netanyahu, came out for dividing Jerusalem at the J Street conference (and was not reprimanded in any way). “It’s going to be some creative idea that will allow them to have their own sovereignty in their neighborhoods and to declare whatever they want to declare about it, and we will have sovereignty over other parts,” Hanegbi said. Tibon likens the comments to those in 2003 by then-deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert supporting territorial withdrawals before it was publicly known that his boss Ariel Sharon had adopted the same position. “If [Israeli chief negotiator] Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu’s emissary Isaac Molho say in the closed room things similar to what Hanegbi said on the stage in Washington,” he writes, “opponents of an agreement have reason to fear.”
I interviewed Livni recently for a profile in Newsweek. Trying to get at whether Netanyahu’s position on Jerusalem and the other core issues had softened, I noted an interview she had given during her time as opposition leader in which she said that Netanyahu was not willing to “pay the price” of an agreement (common parlance for the division of Jerusalem and a return to the 1967 lines with land swaps). I asked her if she believed he was willing to do so now. Her answer, circumlocutory as it was, was telling: ““Everybody who enters the negotiation room—whether on the Israeli side or the Palestinian side—knows basically, in general terms, what’s going to be the price and what we need to get to pay this price.”
For many, the idea that Benjamin Netanyahu will divide Jerusalem remains unfathomable. After all, he rode the slogan “Peres will divide Jerusalem” to the prime minister’s office in 1996. But Bibi would not be the first Israeli prime minister to change his mind on the issue, or even the second. Ehud Barak had famously declared Jerusalem a red line before agreeing to divide the city along ethnic lines in the 2000 Camp David talks. Ehud Olmert, who had campaigned vigorously for a united Jerusalem during his two terms as Jerusalem’s mayor, made the same offer in 2008 during his negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas (“It was a heartbreaking process, to offer that Jerusalem will be split,” Olmert told me earlier this year, recounting his conversion).
When Barak first broached dividing Jerusalem in 2000, it was still a radical idea within Israel (in the nineties, all non-Arab Israeli parties from Likud to Meretz supported keeping Jerusalem united). But today, it is a mainstream, albeit controversial, proposition. (The fault lines are not always clear-cut: Netanyahu’s centrist finance minister Yair Lapid is opposed while his hardline former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has previously expressed support). Some question whether an agreement dividing Jerusalem could pass the referendum that Netanyahu has promised, but polls show that about two-thirds of Israelis would acquiesce in the context of an agreement that ends the conflict—and that is before the bump the effort would probably receive if Netanyahu stumped for it.
Until the April deadline for the talks forces Netanyahu to make tough decisions, speculation about his intentions will remain just that. But if Netanyahu has indeed reversed his position on Jerusalem, it is a game-changer. It takes the odds of an agreement from zero—no Palestinian leader can accept a deal without Jerusalem—to something closer to 50-50. Of course, huge hurdles to reaching an agreement (much less implementing one) remain. Even if Netanyahu accepts the general principle of ceding the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, there is the question of whether he could accept (as Olmert proposed) some sort of international regime for the Old City and its environs. And there would still be major sticking points on other issues (all of which I reviewed at length in my March story on the two-state solution): the fate of contentious large settlements like Ariel; the Palestinian demand for a symbolic right of return (something not only Netanyahu, but Livni, has rejected); Netanyahu’s call for Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state; and his longtime demand for a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley (though this too was absent from the Bar-Ilan speech). But unlike Jerusalem and other big-picture items, these are all differences that could conceivably be bridged with enough American pressure, international money, and regional guarantees (such as Israeli normalization with the Arab League, as promised in the 2002 Arab peace initiative).
If one thing can be said of Netanyahu, it is this: He sees himself in historic terms, as an almost divinely chosen leader. Until the election in Iran of Hassan Rouhani, the conventional wisdom was that Netanyahu would try to secure his place in history as the Israeli statesman who, in his telling, prevented a second Holocaust. But as the chances for an Israeli attack on Iran recede, one can expect Netanyahu to seek a different outlet for his ego.
Ben Birnbaum is a writer living in Israel. Follow him @Ben_Birnbaum.