Arab unrest makes Israeli-Palestinian peace harder, Netanyahu says

April 6, 2011

JERUSALEM — The democratic uprisings that have swept through the Middle East will make it harder for Israel to reach a peace deal with Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said this week.

That stance puts Netanyahu at odds with others here, including his defense minister, who say the changes in the region add urgency to Israel’s pursuit of a peace accord. It will also dampen expectations that Netanyahu will use a visit to Washington next month to outline any bold new ideas about breaking a negotiating impasse.

“Any potential deal with the Palestinians has to account for the tremendous instability in the region,” Netanyahu said in an interview at his Jerusalem office. “The majority of the Israeli public wants to be sure those concessions don’t endanger Israel’s security.”

Netanyahu has always struck a cautious line on relinquishing more of the West Bank to Palestinian control and has long insisted on the need for strong security guarantees, such as maintaining an Israeli military presence in the disputed territory of the Jordan Valley, part of territory that Palestinians want for a future state. But the tumult in Jordan and Egypt makes him even more cautious about making concessions, a senior Israeli official said.

Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, appears to have drawn a different conclusion. Israel faces a “historic earthquake” in the Middle East as well as a diplomatic “tsunami” that could culminate in September, when Palestinian leaders have vowed to seek recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations. Such a move would be “followed by a wide effort aimed at delegitimization of Israel,” Barak said at a conference in Tel Aviv.

Although peace talks with Palestinians have been difficult, “the alternatives have also become much worse,” Barak said. He called for “a stronger sense of purpose and urgency” on peace negotiations.

A group of more than 50 prominent Israelis, including several former top security officials, is also pressing Netanyahu to take the initiative during the current turmoil. They unveiled their own peace plan Wednesday, saying that Israel has to break the stalemate that has left it increasingly isolated internationally.

The signers included former heads of the Shin Bet and Mossad, Israel’s domestic and external intelligence services, a former army chief of staff and the son and daughter of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestinians.

Formulated as a response to the 2002 Arab peace initiative, the plan calls for a Palestinian state with border adjustments between Israel and the West Bank, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which was captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. Former Shin Bet head Yaakov Peri, one of the signers, said he had sent the plan to Netanyahu’s office.

From the start of the Egyptian revolution in January, Netanyahu has expressed skepticism that the uprising would transform Egypt into a democracy. He has worried that Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel could be jeopardized, and he has urged world leaders not to abandon former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, whom Netanyahu valued as a bedrock ally.

Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have been reassured by recent comments by Egyptian military officials running the country that they intend to preserve the peace treaty. But Israeli leaders fear any potential Egyptian rapprochement with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. And they worry that Hamas would overpower the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank if Israel fully ends its occupation of the territory there.

Amid such concerns, Israel appears more focused on firming up existing peace treaties than inking a peace deal with Palestinians. “Let’s cement the peace that we already have with Egypt and Jordan,” the senior Israeli official said.

Such talk, coupled with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to meet Netanyahu while Israel presses ahead with Jewish settlement construction, makes it unlikely that fruitful talks to end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict will resume anytime soon.

Although expectations are low that a peace deal can be achieved by September, a goal set by President Obama in the fall, some on the Israeli left, who are keen to see quicker action on the peace process, are looking to Obama to craft a solution.

But others say that is unlikely. “I don’t think there will be an American attempt to go around the negotiators,” the senior Israeli official said. “They may present their ideas, but they will stress that an agreement must be negotiated between the parties.”

In the absence of any negotiating process, both sides are contemplating unilateral actions. While the Palestinians consider a statehood declaration, Israel could annex settlements in response, although officials said no decision had been made.

Amid the peace process slumber, Netanyahu, 61, who is serving his second term as prime minister, finds Israel’s international standing and his domestic standing deteriorating. He worries about growing hostility toward Israel, especially in Western Europe.

News reports that Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, allowed wealthy friends to pay for past trips abroad have prompted an official investigation and dominated headlines here.

Officials in his own government, such as Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, criticize him for not more clearly articulating what Israel is prepared to offer in any peace deal. Jewish settlers, a source of support in the past, lambaste him for not issuing more building permits for West Bank construction.

“There is quite a big disappointment,” said Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, an umbrella group representing settlers in the West Bank, saying that not enough building permits have been issued for settlement construction since Netanyahu took office.

But even with such pressures, Netanyahu’s core conflict seems to involve the worthiness of a peace deal itself.

Correspondent Joel Greenberg contributed to this report.

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