Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Modest Win for Bibi...for Now

After a year and a half of political stagnation and Israel's increasing international isolation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can claim his first diplomatic achievement - even if it is a modest one.

Direct peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, which are set to re-launch on September 2 in Washington, will begin in accordance with the conditions on which Netanyahu insisted. However, the talks themselves will be Netanyahu's real challenge, when he will be required to make decisions regarding core issues.

Netanyahu's big achievement of the past few months has been his ability to re-direct American pressure: After more than a year of President Barack Obama leveraging heavy pressure on Netanyahu, the U.S. president has begun to apply pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to submit to direct peace talks.

With the help of this pressure from Obama, who has been desperate to achieve a diplomatic victory in the Middle East, Netanyahu got his wish – an American declaration of direct talks with no preconditions. This declaration, as announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, put an end to the Palestinian demand that negotiations be conducted on the condition that a Palestinian state would be established with 1967 borders.

Senior officials in Jerusalem said Netanyahu had clarified to the Americans that his demand for negotiations without preconditions wasn’t only a political stance; it was also a political necessity that would enable him to keep his coalition government intact. Netanyahu had previously agreed with his partners on the right – Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, as well as Minister Benny Begin and Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon – that negotiations would restart with no preconditions. Netanyahu even reiterated this stance in the decision from the forum of seven senior cabinet ministers earlier this week regarding the resumption of peace talks.

With the help of American pressure, Netanyahu also succeeded in rendering essentially meaningless the announcement Friday from the Quartet, which reaffirmed its support for the resolution of all final-status issues. The Palestinians had hoped the European Union, the UN and Russia would be able to hand them a victory by calling for a complete Israeli settlement freeze, but that also did not happen in the end.

The Americans vetoed that demand and clarified that such an announcement would back Netanyahu into a corner and torpedo the negotiations. In the end, the Quartet announcement turned into another international document that lacked bite.

Netanyahu agreed to compromise on one issue – the timetable for negotiations – which also gave the Palestinians something of an achievement. They had demanded a certain timetable in order to bridge their lack of trust regarding Netanyahu's intentions for the peace process. The Israeli premier, who for a year and a half has been trying to prove to the international community that he is a partner for peace, himself recently told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that he believes peace can be achieved within one year. As such, Netanyahu had no problem compromising on the timetable.

Netanyahu's diplomatic victory, however, is a temporary one. U.S. envoy George Mitchell acquiesced to another of Netanyahu's requests – that talks take place with no American mediator in the room – but the administration plans to be especially active in the process. If Mitchell sees that talks stagnating or foot-dragging on Netanyahu's part, he won't hesitate to put American proposals on the table.

In addition, after the celebratory ceremony in Washington, when the essential and Sisyphean talks begin, Netanyahu will be forced to present his first stances on such issues as borders for a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the future of the settlements. Until now, no Likud prime minister has conducted peace talks to reach a final-status agreement with the Palestinian Authority and has, therefore, never been required to seriously deal with these issues. When this moment arrives, the internal differences of opinion, in all their might, and the tension with the American administration will bubble up to the surface and may even intensify. That moment will be Netanyahu's true test.

Baruch atem b'Shem, Yeshua

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