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Netanyahu & Abbas at Crossroads

Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu & Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas Arm Wrestle Over Direct Talks

Likud Cabinet Ministers Warn Netanyahu Not To Extend Ten Month Suspension On Settlement Building That Expires on Sept.26th

Israel Hopeful That Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty Will Be Honored By President Hosni Mubarak's Successor

Benyamin Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)

 Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and West Bank Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas continue to spar over the conditions for starting direct negotiations. Netanyahu's condition is that there be no prior conditions; Abbas now demands an Israeli commitment to extend the current freeze on settlement building that expires on September 26th. American envoy George Mitchell is trying hard to square the circle in the current proximity talks he is conducting between the two sides. The Washington Times report that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is seriously ill with stomach and pancreas cancer has caught Israel's attention. However the reaction is one of confidence - Israeli experts believe there will be a smooth succession of power, whenever Mubarak departs.

 The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now at a new crossroads. Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has declared his readiness to make wide ranging concessions to West Bank Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, if Abbas will agree to return to direct negotiations. Not only two Left- wing peace-makers, President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have said they believed Netanyahu, so did U.S. President Barack Obama. Netanyahu has apparently been telling them in private something he has yet to to say publicly. Now it stands to reason that one may be skeptical about the opinion of Peres and Barak, but what persuaded Obama to declare:'I think Netanyahu wants peace, I think he's willing to take risks for peace.' So it stands to reason that Netanyahu must have told Obama something that did the trick. This is what now worries leading figures both in Netanyahu's Right- wing Likud party and also in his government coalition. For example, they play down any possibility that Netanyahu might continue the current settlement building 'suspension' after the ten month period expires on September 26th.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Prominent Likud cabinet ministers such as Moshe Ya'alon and Benny Begin have declared publicly that Israel must resume settlement building at full tilt. They, as does Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, contend there is no real Palestinian peace partner. In their opinion, Abbas is a sham who leads only only part of the Palestinians and is too weak to make real peace, even if he wanted. Moreover, most Likudniks also argue that 'settlements are not an obstacle to peace'. For his part, Netanyahu has sufficed by saying:'The (Israel) government's decision on the ten month suspension still stands'. Now that is not the same as saying:'We will definitely resume settlement building after September 26th and under no condition will we agree to extend the suspension!' In other words, Netanyahu has left the door open for Abbas to enter. But on one condition- Abbas must not set any prior condition of his own for starting face-to-face talks. Until now, Abbas has been insisting on American guarantees for Palestinian positions on final status issues, such as future borders etc. Now Abbas may have bended a little by saying that he will go to the table if Israel extends the settlement freeze. On this note, President Shimon Peres has just said: 'Prime Minister Netanyahu means business on reaching an agreement in direct talks and the differences between Israel and the Palestinians are not all that great. However, the Palestinians could not call on the world to demand concessions from Israel on final issues before the direct talks even started'.

In the past, Israel's U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren has said publicly: 'Israel would be prepared to discuss an extension of the settlement freeze at direct talks'. Was Oren simply speaking in an unguarded moment implying that 'all topics could be on the table', without committing to any new building limitations? When asked for a reaction, a Netanyahu spokesman told IsraCast that he knew of no Israeli commitment to extend the settlement freeze if Abbas entered face-to-face talks with Israel. One solution is the idea of Likud cabinet minister Dan Meridor who suggests that Israel would restrict its settlement building solely to within the municipal boundaries of the settlement blocs that Abbas agreed would be part of Israel in a final agreement. However, there is a catch. Such an Israeli agreement would imply the Israeli government's acceptance of these lines as the borders of a future Palestinian state. (It would be tantamount to a de facto renunciation of Israel's right to build in all of the traditional Land of Israel, a step that many Likud members would reject as would the other Right-wing coalition partners including Lieberman.)

Netanyahu was able to sway his Right-wing coalition to accept the ten-month suspension as a solution to the crisis with Washington over building in eastern Jerusalem. But this was with the proviso to send in the bull dozers immediately after the freeze expires. It would appear that Netanyahu would have to receive a major concession from Abbas and even then it's doubtful that he could persuade his coalition to extend the freeze.

For his part, Abbas fears that if he agrees to meet Netanyahu face-to-face without any prior conditions, he will face the wrath of his bitter Hamas rivals who expelled him from Gaza in 2007. Therefore, Abbas is seeking the guidance and support of the Arab League. This is similar to the situation before Abbas agree to the current proximity talks with Israel that are brokered by U.S. envoy George Mitchell. At the time, Abbas more or less said told the Arab League members:'Tell me what to do and I'll do it'. They told him to go for it and he did. Perhaps the same thing will happen this time as well. The Arab League may be more interested in presenting a strong unified front against Iran that includes Israel. What is becoming increasingly clear is the growing awareness of the threat to the region posed by a nuclear Iran, a radical Shiite state. The rift, that is not covered widely by the international media, is not only geopolitical in nature centering on Iran's drive for regional hegemony. It also resonates deeply in the animosity between Sunni and Shiite forms of Islam. One Sunni religious leader once declared publicly: 'If I had to, I would prefer giving my daughter in marriage to a Jew rather than to a Shiite!'

From the outset, the Arab League has always pursued an aggressive policy toward the Jewish state denying the Jewish right to self- determination in its ancient homeland. In fact, it suspended Egypt in 1979 for making peace with Israel. Ten years later, it readmitted Egypt and the League's headquarters was moved back to Cairo. When it comes to Israel, the power elites in most of the League states now appear to have adopted the adage:'The enemy of my enemy is my friend'. This has prompted the League to adopt the Saudi initiative that recognizes Israel while tacking on conditions that are unaccetable to the Jewish state. Nonetheless, it appears most Arab countries are no longer ready to man the Palestinian ramparts now that Israel may be the only one ready to take on their most dangerous enemy, Iran.

President Mubarak II

Ehyptian President Mubarak

The leadership of Egypt, the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, is naturally a key national interest to the Jewish State. Therefore the Washington Times report that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may die of cancer within a year caught Israel's immediate attention. Mubarak, as did his predecessor Anwar Sadat, has honored the peace treaty and has been a pillar of stability in the Middle East. Israeli experts believe that whenever Mubarak departs the Presidential Palace, there will be a smooth transition of power to his predecessor, most likely his forty-seven year old son Gamal Mubarak.

IsraCast, Jerusalem

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