Netanyahu’s Talk of Peace Finds Few True Believers: NYT

Last Updated: Monday, July 20, 2009 - 13:17

Jerusalem: On the Palestinian side, aides to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, have called Mr. Netanyahu’s grudging endorsement of Palestinian statehood, under international pressure, a disingenuous public relations exercise.
But even senior officials and prominent figures of his conservative Likud Party have been busy explaining, privately and publicly, why they think there is not likely to be a Palestinian state any time soon, in ways that raise even more questions about the current government’s commitment to reaching a final peace accord.

And Mr. Netanyahu’s diplomatic turnaround was greeted by a notable silence among the Likud firebrands and hawks, widely interpreted here as a sign that they feel they have nothing to fear.

Marking his first 100 days in office earlier this month, Mr. Netanyahu credited his government with bringing about national consensus on “the idea of two states for two peoples,” employing the language of the internationally accepted formula for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the first time. Last Sunday he called on the Palestinian leadership to meet for peace talks.

Mr. Netanyahu has been explicit, though, about his conditions for a deal. He says the Palestinians must recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Palestinian negotiators reject such recognition, contending it would preclude the demand of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and their descendants for the right of return to their former homes, and be detrimental to the status of Israel’s Arab minority.

Mr. Netanyahu adds that the problem of the refugees has to be resolved outside the borders of Israel and that Israel will only accept defensible borders, and he wants international guarantees that any Palestinian state will be fully demilitarized.

To that his aides have lately added that there is currently no Palestinian partner who can deliver the essential conditions for statehood as outlined by Mr. Netanyahu, or who is capable of making the historic compromise necessary for a final peace deal.

It is a familiar refrain: For years, leaders from the Likud Party refused to negotiate on grounds that Yasir Arafat, the strongman of Palestinian nationalism who many Israelis viewed as a dictatorial terrorist, was no partner for peace. Now his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, the Western-backed Palestinian president who has shunned violence against Israelis, is held in disregard for being domestically weak.

The Israeli leaders note that Mr. Abbas does not control Gaza, which was taken over by his Hamas rivals two years ago. They add that it is doubtful how much he controls what they call Judea and Samaria, the biblical name for the West Bank, and say that if the Israeli Army were to leave the area it could turn into another “Hamastan.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s string of conditions for a Palestinian state do seem to have ameliorated opposition from the Israeli right.

In the past, “Israeli discourse on diplomacy has chiefly addressed the Palestinian need for a state but did not establish parallel Israeli rights,” said Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a research institute, and a former ambassador who has long been close to Mr. Netanyahu.

The prime minister, he said, “tried to correct that asymmetry” by publicly defining fundamental Israeli interests for the first time.

But Mr. Netanyahu’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, the 100-year-old historian and staunch right-wing ideologue, told Israel’s Channel 2 News on July 8 that his son had set conditions he knew the Palestinians would never be able to accept.

Whatever the prime minister’s real intentions, those around him harbor low expectations of the chances for peace. Dan Meridor, deputy prime minister and minister of intelligence and atomic energy, and a leading pragmatist of Likud, recently told reporters that it was an “open question” whether the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank was ready to take the “minimum steps needed” to meet Israeli requirements for an end-of-conflict agreement.

“We do not seem to have a partner now,” Mr. Meridor said.

Speaking more bluntly, Uzi Arad, Mr. Netanyahu’s national security adviser and longtime confidant, in an interview with the newspaper Haaretz published on July 10, said, “I have not yet encountered an Arab personage who is capable of saying quietly and clearly that he or she accepts Israel’s right of existence in the deep historical and conscious sense,” making it difficult to imagine a true agreement in the coming years.

Mr. Arad said there were “no true peace leaders among the Palestinians,” adding, “at the moment, there is no one on the map.”

Other Netanyahu aides spoke privately in the same vein.

These conclusions, according to some of them, come from a policy review of past Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, which ended without results.

In particular, they noted, Ehud Olmert as prime minister went far in trying to reach an agreement with Mr. Abbas. Mr. Meridor said it was “unlikely” that Mr. Netanyahu would offer the Palestinians better terms than Mr. Olmert did. Mr. Olmert has said that he never heard back.

Instead, the Netanyahu government is proposing a bottom-up approach to peacemaking that might take some time, with an emphasis on development of the Palestinian economy in the West Bank. It has already removed several checkpoints and taken measures to ease the movement of people and goods.

Mr. Netanyahu has publicly called for talks on diplomatic and economic peace, but each side blames the other for the fact that negotiations remain stalled.

The Israelis say the Palestinians are being passive and have made a complete freeze in settlement building a condition for resuming talks.

Saeb Erekat, a senior Abbas aide and veteran Palestinian negotiator, said stopping settlement construction, as the Americans have demanded, was “an Israeli obligation, not a Palestinian condition.” There can be no compromise, he added. “Either they stop or they do not,” he said.

The Israelis say Mr. Erekat is just posturing. Mr. Erekat, meanwhile, said of the Israelis, “They are the ones refusing to meet with us.”

Adding to the circular feeling of the conflict, Mr. Erekat stated that if the Israelis were willing to resume negotiations like before on the core, final status issues of the conflict, including borders, refugees, Jerusalem and the settlements, “then Saeb Erekat will come.”

Under the circumstances, experts say, the Obama administration’s pursuit of a speedy two-state solution to the conflict can go only so far.

“The key to making peace lies with the Israelis and the Palestinians,” said Mr. Gold, the former ambassador. The United States cannot make peace, he said, or want it more than the two sides.



First Published: Monday, July 20, 2009 - 13:17

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