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Netanyahu's Statecraft Put To Test

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Hints At U.S. Commitment To Ariel Sharon On 'Settlement Blocs' In Judea & Samaria

Prominent Israeli Experts Warn Of Diplomatic Debacle If UN General Assembly Recognizes Palestinian State On Lines Of 1967

Right Wing Calls On Netanyahu Not To Give In To U.S. Pressure Contending That General Assembly Resolution Will Prove Meaningless

David Essing

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's upcoming visit to Washington may be one of the most crucial in Israel's history. At stake, the outcome to the diplomatic warfare that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been waging against the Jewish state. At present, Abbas has garnered the votes of more than 130 members of the UN General Assembly for a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state on the lines of 1967. Israeli experts have warned that such a step will have a grave impact on the Jewish state's international status, security and economic well being. Analyst David Essing has this assessment:

Can Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu still succeed in turning this diplomatic debacle around? His Right wing supporters contend that the General Assembly vote this fall will be meaningless, while his critics and even Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Cabinet Minister Dan Meridor warn that the PM must launch an immediate diplomatic initiative to resuscitate the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have all but expired. Otherwise, Israel will suffer a diplomatic defeat similar to its military setback at the start of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. This was the estimate of nearly all the prominent Israeli retired generals and ambassadors, as well as Middle East experts, who addressed an open session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week. Now at the eleventh hour, Israel requires America's political support in the international arena. Now if Netanyahu is going to ask for Obama's help, it stands to reason that he will have to offer something in return. Bear in mind the U.S.leader is striving to improve ties with the Islamic world after he ordered the execution of Osama Bin Laden and his hesitant role during the upheavals in the Arab states. In the midst of his reelection campaign, Obama is obviously interested in preserving his vast majority of Jewish voters but he may also tell Netanyahu that he will find it difficult to cast any more vetoes in the UN Security Council or votes in the General Assembly for an 'obstructionist Israel'.

Binyamin Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)

In order to persuade Obama that he means business, what wiggle room will Netanyahu have in Washington in light of his government's tough stance back in Jerusalem. In his speech to the Knesset, he may have hinted at two possibilities. For the first time, the PM spoke of the inclusion of the 'settlement blocs in Judea & Samaria' that are more or less adjacent to the 1967 lines, without mentioning the other isolated settlements that are sprinkled across the West Bank. MK Tzipi Hotobeli, a Likud firebrand, was so alarmed she immediately approached the PM after he left the rostrum and queried him about the fate of the settlements. Hotobeli later told reporters the PM had reassured her that he would protect the other settlements as well. But the fact remains that Netanyahu referred only to the settlement blocs in his official address.

Another point of interest - the PM's reference to a long term IDF military presence along the Jordan River - again without any reference to the Israeli farming villages in the Jordan Valley Basin. Moreover, Netanyahu stressed that if there were a real Palestinian peace partner he would be ready to make concessions that were 'painful' not only because they were important for security, but also because the territory was part of the Jewish homeland. Although Netanyahu appeared to mention these two possible avenues of compromise there was a second side of the coin. He highlighted the current instability in the surrounding region and the 'reconciliation' between more moderate Abbas and radical Hamas that openly vows to liquidate 'the Zionist project'. How, Netanyahu asked, can Israel negotiate with a Palestinian partner that was half terrorist. Israel's strategic landscape was also worrisome. The rebellions in Egypt and Jordan, with which Israel had made major concessions for peace, have raised ominous questions over the future of the peace treaties. Although in the long run they might provide opportunities for the building of democratic regimes there was also the risk that hostile regimes, such as the Muslim Brothers would eventually seize power. No one had a crystal ball for predicting the future of the region. Another neighbor Syria was in the throes of a bloody revolution with the outcome still in doubt. Also to the north, Lebanon was now at the mercy of Hizbullah, a terror organization that served as Iran's forward base on Israel's border.

Mahmoud Abbas, Benyamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama(Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

The next step in this drama: Obama will upstage Netanyahu with his speech to the Arab world that the PM will listen to during his flight to the U.S. He will then be able to gauge the tenor of the President's address before they meet privately in the White House - that's where the real action will take place. Netanyahu will make his pitch - who knows, possibly with a message to be conveyed to Abbas. For example, Channel 11TV commentator Oded Granot has suggested that Netanyahu should take a page from the book of the late Yitzak Rabin, during peace feelers with Syria that were conducted by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Rabin gave Christopher his confidential assurance that he would be ready to withdraw from the Golan Heights, if President Hafez Assad would be willing to make real peace. This became known as Rabin's 'deposit' for peace that would enable Christopher to probe Assad on how far the Syrian ruler would go. As it turned out the peace feelers fell through but Rabin did manage to put the ball in Assad's court. Maybe Netanyahu should also give Obama his final offer and see if Abbas is ready to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland and settle the Palestinian refugees in the Palestinian homeland, and agree to adequate security arrangements as well as the finality of all claims.

It should be noted that in a letter to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, former U.S. President George W. Bush referred to the need for including the 'settlement blocs' in any permanent peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. This apparently was in return for Israel's acceptance of the Roadmap peace plan for a two-state solution. Sharon was not enamored by the Roadmap but realized that Bush needed it in order to gain greater Arab and EU backing for the U.S. war in Iraq. At that time, Sharon warned that the Palestinians were bent on 'internationalizing the conflict' and the Israeli government must prevent this from ever happening. Alas, this may now come to pass. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni charged that during the past two years Netanyahu has been asleep at the wheel, more concerned with preserving his Right wing coalition than countering the Palestinian diplomatic warfare.

Time is running out, but in Washington Binyamin Netanyahu still has a last chance - but if most of the experts are right, it will pose a formidable test of his statecraft.

David Essing

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