Obama more successful than appears, peace process about to restart

Posted: August 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off

There are signs in the last couple of days that the diplomatic pre-game is about to end, and that we are heading for a renewal of the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu has met with US envoy George Mitchell today, and although there is no agreement on the settlements freeze the administration demanded (maybe it’s even for the best), there are indications that the Israeli PM understands that if he won’t engage in some sort of meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, he will end up with a “take it or leave it” American offer on his table, possibly as early as October. Since such a plan would put Netanyahu in a tough corner – he will have to choose between saying yes and losing his coalition to saying no and losing all credibility with Europe and the administration – he probably prefers to deal with Mahmud Abbas personally.

There are also other signals hinting that Netanyahu is willing to take some steps forward. In response to his deputy Moshe Yaalon’s nationalistic statements last week, Netanyahu has reaffirmed his commitment to the two state solution. As Akiva Eldar reported in Haaretz, his aids have even pointed out to foreign diplomats that in his recent remarks, Netanyahu didn’t demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish State, as he did previously. There is even some nervousness in the right wing regarding Netanyahu’s plans. I guess that they are sensing something.

On the Palestinian side, we had two meaningful events: yesterday, PM Sallam Fayad announced that the Palestinians are planning to establish their state in two years, “even without Israel’s approval”. I guess this statement was aimed at the Palestinian public, since it doesn’t make much sense elsewhere. The Palestinians can declare whatever they like, but without an Israeli withdrawal and the dismantling of at least some of the settlements, it will be totally meaningless, even harmful, since Israel will claim again that “there is no occupation”. After all, the Palestinians have already declared independence once, in 1988, and it didn’t seem to help them much.

More important are the reports today that Mahmud Abbas is finally willing to meet Netanyahu. Abbas waited to see what concessions the new administration will get out of Israel, and he probably reached the conclusion that Obama has played out his hand, and that it’s time for him to step in again.

Abbas has more room to maneuver since his victory in the Fatah convention last month, but the Palestinians are still unable to present a united front. This problem will have to be addressed in the future, since leaving the Hamas out of the process will undoubtedly fail any agreement the two sides will reach.

In recent weeks, many people in the israeli left showed disappointment with the Obama administration’s conduct after the President’s speech in Cairo. Some went as far as claiming that Netanyahu was able block the American effort completely. Recent events prove that this is not the case.

On the internal political front, Netanyahu was indeed successful in his effort to contain the damage to his coalition after Obama’s speech. The PM’s response speech established a line that was acceptable for the majority of the Israeli public as well as most of the Knesset. But Netanyahu was forced to halt most of the construction projects in the West Bank – and even some in East Jerusalem – in a way Olmert, Sharon or Barak never did. Furthermore, he did this while keeping the right and the settlers fairly quiet. And the US administration avoided the trap of signing with him an agreement which wouldn’t include a complete freeze of all settlements (and thus handing Israel with an official paper that approve construction in some of the settlements).

What’s next? The first step will be a meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu, which should lead to some form of ongoing negotiations. The American administration will than have to form a package of sticks and carrots to be used throughout the process, because if not, both sides will stick to their opening positions and blame each other for the failure. One of the most important questions will be when to throw in America’s plan. A decade ago, Bill Clinton did this too late – but coming out too early with a plan can be dangerous as well.

And there is also the Hamas, of course.

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