At the end of this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will mark eight years since he returned to office, following a decade-long exile.
Throughout this entire period, the largest question mark looming over his premiership has been whether he actually desires some form of peace deal with the Palestinians — or if all the statements he has made to that effect have been part of his strategy to play for time until the world is either tired of the conflict or somehow convinced that Israel should not make any concessions to the Palestinians.
There is ample evidence to bear out both theories.
The recent revelations in Haaretz of how Mr Netanyahu spent close to a year discussing a “regional peace initiative” with Labour Leader Isaac Herzog, until Mr Herzog finally gave up on him five months ago, only add to the mystery.
During the talks, Mr Netanyahu had multiple meetings, both with Mr Herzog and the leaders of Jordan and Egypt, as well as with former US State Secretary John Kerry. And at the end of the discussions, a joint statement was drafted reflecting a clear willingness on the part of Mr Netanyahu to strike a deal involving territorial compromise. It all seemed to suggest that, on some level at least, Mr Netanyahu seems to have been serious.
Unless, of course, it was all an elaborate charade and the prime minister’s intention from the start had been to string along his interlocutors, playing for time as the clock ran out on Barack Obama’s presidency. There is evidence of this: at every critical juncture, when a public statement of commitment was called for, Mr Netanyahu was prevented from taking the next step, fearful of the reactions within his coalition and even his own party. He must have realised while sitting with Messrs Herzog, Kerry and el-Sisi that none of this would go down very well with Naftali Bennett.
As it so often seems with Mr Netanyahu, there could well be some truth in both explanations — that he was serious about the initiative and that he was also playing for time.
With John Kerry finally off the international stage and Mr Herzog fighting what seems a losing battle to remain Labour leader, the regional initiative has not disappeared.
If the joint press conference with US President Donald Trump last month in the White House is anything to go by, the new administration is quite enamoured with the concept as well.
Only now we have another question mark to add to the mystery surrounding Mr Netanyahu’s true intentions.
For all his faults, there was no mistaking Secretary Kerry’s earnestness in trying to pull the negotiations cart out of the swamp. With the new management in Washington, nothing is clear and today’s enthusiasm may easily be replaced by apathy tomorrow and antipathy next week. And then, of course, there is the minor issue of whether the Palestinians will join in.
It’s too early to eulogise the “regional peace initiative” because it was never more than an embryo. Like so many other episodes in the Israel-
Palestine diplomatic process, it failed to advance beyond the just-talking stage. For many of the players, simply talking about a process seems to be enough.