Netanyahu visit deepens Israeli-Palestinian impasse

May 25, 2011

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s tumultuous visit to Washington has left Israeli and Palestinian officials facing each other across a deepening abyss, raising concerns that the impasse in peace efforts could prompt a renewed slide to violence.

“When all is said and done, the question remains, where do we go from here?” wrote Sima Kadmon, a columnist in Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s most widely read newspaper.

Israeli commentators said that Netanyahu’s firm declarations — in a contentious White House meeting with President Obama and in an address to Congress — have thrown differences with the Palestinians into sharp relief and won support for the prime minister in his rightist governing coalition.

But his qualified readiness to cede some territory in the West Bank fell far short of a workable starting point for negotiations, analysts said.

“Netanyahu outlined his opening position for a peace process, but it’s a nonstarter,” said Yossi Alpher, co-editor of Bitter Lemons, an Internet forum on Middle East issues, and former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“He made peace with Congress and even called a truce with Obama,” Alpher said, “but I don’t think he’ll convince anyone in Europe, the Arab world or the White House to take his side.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said at a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah on Wednesday that Netanyahu had offered “nothing we can build on.” He said the Israeli prime minister had dictated solutions before negotiations had begun and “moved a long way from the peace process.”

Abbas said that in the absence of talks, the Palestinians would pursue their bid for recognition of statehood at the United Nations in September. Obama reiterated his rejection of that step in London on Wednesday, calling it “a mistake” that would “not serve the interests of the Palestinian people and will not achieve their stated goal of achieving a Palestinian state.”

In a sign of Palestinian frustration, Abbas Zaki, a senior member of Abbas’s Fatah faction, called on Palestinians on Wednesday to take to the streets and “set the ground on fire,” emulating the popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

The sense of deadlock was deepened by the volley of demands that accompanied Netanyahu’s offers of compromise in his speech to Congress.

On the core issue of borders, Netanyahu said that Israel would be “very generous on the size of a future Palestinian state.” But he asserted that populous Israeli settlements in the West Bank and “other places of critical strategic and national importance” would remain part of Israel in a future peace deal.

He also demanded a long-term Israeli military presence along the West Bank’s border with Jordan and full control of Jerusalem, including its eastern part, claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of their future state.

Other demands by Netanyahu, such as Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state and the annulment of the recent reconciliation pact between Abbas’s Fatah faction and the militant Hamas movement, were interpreted by Palestinian officials as slamming the door on any meaningful engagement.

Netanyahu’s remarks “destroyed any hope that existed that there would be a resumption of the peace process,” Nabil Shaath, a senior aide to Abbas, told Israeli Army Radio.

There were also signs of unease in Israel about Netanyahu’s unbending stance. An opinion poll published by the Maariv newspaper showed that 57 percent of those surveyed favored a more positive response to Obama’s speech last week, in which he called for a negotiated two-state solution based on Israel’s 1967 boundaries, with mutual exchanges of territory.

“My concern is that this round of speeches in the United States may leave us and the Palestinians with the door shut,” Avi Dichter, a lawmaker from the opposition Kadima party and a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, said in a radio interview. “Regretfully, we’ve reached a dead end, and the prime minister . . . has blocked our way.”

The liberal Haaretz newspaper lamented in an editorial what it called Netanyahu’s missed opportunity to present a vision for peace that could have broken the diplomatic impasse. “He is leading Israel and the Palestinians to another round of violence and to Israel’s isolation, in deep disagreement with the American administration,” the newspaper said.

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