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With the White House heightening its involvement in Middle East peace talks, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is publicly telling Obama the same thing he told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after Palestinians secured reconciliation between the PA and Hamas: that Abbas and the Palestinians must “choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas.”

The implication being that, were Abbas to jettison Hamas and pull up a chair at Israel’s bargaining table, Netanyahu would gladly invest his time and political capital in the establishment of a peace agreement and a Palestinian state.

Only one problem: Netanyahu made little investment in peace negations during the two years that preceded the PA’s reconciliation with Hamas, lending credence to the notion that Netanyahu’s calls are nothing more than a bluff.

It is a bluff he is brazenly casting at our President.

And it is a bluff Obama can't call.

Regarding Netanyahu, what many commentators fail to mention, as Israel’s prime minister clamors for the Palestinians to reject unity with those who ideologically seek Israel’s destruction, is this: Netanyahu has, in his ruling coalition, those who reject Palestine’s right to exist, those who seek to establish Israel’s borders on the entirety of Palestinian land.

The Jewish Home (הבית היהודי), one of several parties within Netanyahu’s coalition, is a right-wing entity comprised of mostly former National Religious Party ministers. Its members believe in a Greater Israel – in a belief that all of biblical Judea and Samaria, including those lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, should belong to one political state: Israel. The party views settlement of the West Bank as a religious requirement, and its desire to reclaim Greater Israel informs nearly all of its positions vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

This desire for a Greater Israel, for all of the West Bank to be wrested from Palestinian hands and delivered unto Israel, is a position that unfortunately extends far beyond the borders of The Jewish Home. Recently, Likud member and deputy speaker of the Knesset, Danny Danon, wrote this in an op-ed for The New York Times:

While most voices in the Israeli and international news media are calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to grant major concessions to the Palestinians…he should in fact do the opposite: he should annex the Jewish communities of the West Bank, or as Israelis prefer to refer to our historic heartland, Judea and Samaria.

Not only does Danon assert that Israel should preemptively annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank; he also makes sure to announce that such areas are Israel’s “historic heartland,” Judea and Samaria, and goes on to state that it was a mistake not to have annexed the entire region in 1967. Given such aspirations, the title of his op-ed, “Making the Land of Israel Whole,” could not make more explicit his desire to establish the State of Israel on all Palestinian lands.  

If Netanyahu were serious about peace with the Palestinians – if he took his own position regarding Hamas seriously – he would not only purge The Jewish Home from his ruling coalition, but he would admonish such public statements by the likes of Danon as well. A moral and political consistency would require him to do so.

Of course, the reality is that Netanyahu – who consistently refers to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria” – politically aligns closely with Danon, and so the hypocrisy ensues: while harboring within his own government those who would deny Palestine the right to exist and champion the destruction of such a possibility, Netanyahu clamors for Abbas to reject those Palestinians who delegitimize Israel’s right to exist and seek its destruction.

Obama and the White House are well aware of these contradictions – they understand Netanyahu's history and the makeup of his ruling coalition. And yet, Obama has been unwilling to call Netanyahu out on his bluff publicly, not because he doesn't recognize it as such, but because politically, he cannot afford to do so with 2012 on the horizon and a bevy of Republican candidates itching to say, once again, that Obama has thrown Israel under the bus to Jewish and conservative Christian voters.

And so, publicly (at least), Obama can't call Netanyahu's Hamas bluff.

Now, one thing needs to be made clear: I harbor neither admiration nor sympathy for Hamas as a political/militant institution. I understand all too intimately the real-world effects of its hateful doctrines, and reject its virulent positions.

However, I equally reject those positions held by the likes of Danon and The Jewish Home. Yes, there is a distinction to be made between Hamas, a terror organization, and Greater Israel adherents. This distinction, though, does not remove the fact that both factions refuse to recognize the others’ right to a politically sovereign state. Which is why, whenever I hear Netanyahu call upon Abbas to reject Hamas, I cup a hand to my ear, waiting for the accompanying announcement that he is ready to reject the extremists in his midst, that he is ready to reject those in his governing class who would seek Palestine’s destruction.

Of course, such an announcement will never come, for Netanyahu has no interest in the formation of a Palestinian state on any borders. And so he continues to bluff, calling on Abbas to reject Hamas as he tries to run out the clock, the settlements piling up, apartment building after apartment building.

Which begs the question: will Obama, in private, have the political will to call out Netanyahu in private as his administration tries to convince Israel's prime minister to seriously engage in peace talks?

Tragically, the clock is about to run out on Israel. Abbas is planning to form a unity government next week filled mostly with technocrats that, he insists, will recognize Israel’s right to exist within secure borders. (Though this remains to be seen, given Hamas's recent protesting of Abbas's prime ministerial candidate.) This is in preparation for September and the promise of unilaterally declaring statehood before the UN General Assembly. Faced with little chance for renewed negotiations with Netanyahu’s government, Abbas is steadying himself, and the Palestinians, for this option of last resort.

And unlike Netanyahu, he’s not bluffing.

Originally posted to Foreign Relations on Tue Jun 14, 2011 at 05:46 PM PDT.

Also republished by Adalah — A Just Middle East.

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