Netanyahu, headed to Washington, is pressed to take initiative in peace process

May 18, 2011

Pressed at home and abroad to take the initiative and break the impasse in Middle East peacemaking, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will travel to Washington this week with demands and hints of compromise, while accusing the Palestinians of slamming the door on peace.

But with no bold plan of his own to put on the table, Netanyahu has drawn fire from domestic critics who say he risks leaving the field open to the Palestinians, whose drive for recognition of statehood at the United Nations in September is gathering steam.

“The prime minister is traveling to the United States without a vision and without a plan of action,” Tzipi Livni, the head of the opposition and leader of the centrist Kadima party, told the Israeli parliament Monday. “This government fears taking the initiative, and in practice our fate is sealed by others.”

Netanyahu is expected to visit the White House on Friday, a day after President Obama’s scheduled address on the wave of reform now reshaping the Middle East.

On Tuesday, Obama hosted King Abdullah II of Jordan, whose kingdom has been shaken by some of those demands for democratic reform. Abdullah has urged the Obama administration to do more to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process at a time of historic political change in the region.

Speaking after his Oval Office meeting with Abdullah, Obama said the two leaders agreed that “it’s more vital than ever that both Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table and begin negotiating a process whereby they can create two states that are living side by side in peace and security.”

But Netanyahu asserts that, with the Arab world in turmoil, the time is not ripe for significant concessions to the Palestinians that he says could jeopardize Israel’s security.

Outlining his position on a Palestinian state to the legislature, he signaled more flexibility on the issue of borders, implying readiness to cede much of the West Bank while retaining large Israeli settlement blocs. But he insisted on a continued Israeli military presence along the territory’s border with Jordan, full control of Jerusalem and Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state — demands that the Palestinians reject.

Perhaps more telling has been Netanyahu’s portrayal of recent Palestinian moves as reducing the conflict to its existential, intractable core. His message, analysts say, is that with such implacable adversaries, there is not much Israel can do.

Mass protests on Sunday, in which thousands of Palestinians marched on Israel’s borders to mark the anniversary of its creation and their displacement, were part of a struggle to destroy Israel, not to build a state alongside it, Netanyahu told legislators Monday.

“The root of the conflict is not the absence of a Palestinian state,” he said. “The root of the conflict was and remains the refusal to recognize the Jewish state.”

Netanyahu also warned that if the recent Palestinian reconciliation accord between the Fatah and Hamas factions produced a government that included Hamas, a militant Islamist group that refuses to recognize Israel, there would be no peace talks.

“Someone who wants to destroy us is not a partner for peace,” he said.

By presenting the Palestinian demands as absolute, Netanyahu is saying that “there is nothing we can do, don’t push us,” said Shlomo Brom, an analyst with the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

After meeting with Obama, Netanyahu is scheduled to speak at a gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group, on Monday and address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.

“He has to show some flexibility, but on the other hand he doesn’t want to hurt support in his constituency, which is the Israeli right,” Brom said. “On top of that, his positions reflect a deep-rooted belief among many people in this government that it’s not really possible to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.”

Still, some voices in the government have been urging Netanyahu to take the diplomatic initiative instead of simply reacting to events as they unfold.

One senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his proximity to Netanyahu, said Israel cannot afford to stay passive on the Palestinian front.

“If the tendency is not to take a bold initiative because of the risk involved, it could become even more risky when the ground is shaking around us,” the official said. “When you’re on a slippery slope, you need to move, and the only way to do it is to put an Israeli initiative on the table and be more proactive. The longer you wait, the less you can do.”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a key ally of Netanyahu’s, has sought to cast Israeli positions in more positive terms.

Regarding the Hamas-Fatah agreement, Barak has suggested that Israel, in coordination with Washington, express readiness to talk with a new Palestinian unity government if it meets conditions set by the United States and other nations: that it recognize Israel, accept previous accords with it and renounce violence.

Netanyahu’s trip to Washington, following visits to London and Paris, is part of a bid to enlist key Western leaders to help block the Palestinian statehood initiative at the United Nations. But the effort has met with only partial success.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy indicated recently that France would back recognition of Palestinian statehood if peace talks remain stalled, and British Prime Minister David Cameron told Netanyahu that he would consider doing the same if peace talks don’t resume, according to accounts of their meeting.

In the latest effort to enlist support for statehood, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas urged international backing for the move in an op-ed article published Tuesday in the New York Times.

Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said repeating familiar arguments in Washington could not be a substitute for fresh policy proposals by Netanyahu.

“Netanyahu is very good at public diplomacy,” Avineri said. “But he does not appear ready to announce a major policy shift.”

Staff writer Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.

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