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Netanyahu - Seize The Day!

Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu Promises U.S. President Obama To Work With Him For Palestinian Peace But Refuses To Return To Borders of 1967, Accept Palestinian Refugees Or Negotiate With Hamas

Obama Says Differences With Netanyahu Are Between Friends & Will Not Harm Ties Of Friendship Between U.S. & Israel

In Jerusalem, Likud Cabinet Minister Mickey Eitan Predicts Likud & Right Wing Coalition Will Back Netanyahu's More Flexible Approach to Palestinian Issue

Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu went into the White House on the brink of a bitter crisis with U.S.President Barack Obama. This time it was not over West Bank settlements but Obama's setting the 1967 border as baseline for a Palestinian peace agreement. While still in Israel, Netanyahu had immediately rejected it in no uncertain terms. Fireworks were in the offing at a time the Jewish state needed U.S. support in the face of a successful Palestinian campaign to acquire UN General Assembly this fall for recognition of a Palestinian state on the 1967 border. However after the meeting, when the two leaders appeared together before the media, both Obama and Netanyahu parted as friends and agreed to work for an Israeli- Palestinian peace agreement despite their differences. Analyst David Essing has this appraisal.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu rose to the occasion. With the whole world watching, he proclaimed that Israel could not accept all of President Barack Obama's terms for peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu declared that the lines of 1967 were indefensible, nor could Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to the Jewish state, something that would spell it's demise. In quiet but forceful words, Netanyahu declared: 'It is not going to happen!' Less than twenty four hours earlier, Obama became the first U.S. President to state that the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed land swaps, must be the basis for determining the borders of Palestine. However, the Israeli leader noted, in terms the American people could also visualize, that the 1967 border was only nine miles wide, half the width of the Washington Beltway, and had proven to be 'attractive' as a target for Arab attacks. Moreover, Netanyahu insisted that a long term Israeli military presence was vital along the Jordan River.

Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In his Middle East speech, Obama had stated that the question of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 returning to Israel should be determined in negotiations. Again, Netanyahu retorted: 'It is not going to happen!' And he noted that a similar number of Jewish refugees had been expelled from Arab countries but they were given new homes by tiny Israel, while the vast Arab world has refused to absorb the Palestinian refugees. The day before at the State Department, Obama had stunned the Israeli government and most Israelis by presenting what amounted to a full blown peace proposal leaving Israel and the Palestinians to connect the dots. The President took pains to explain that ending Israel's occupation was essential for implementing his Middle East doctrine directed at promoting democratic reform and human rights in the Arab world. At the end of their White House meeting, Obama declared that their differences were among friends and would not prejudice the close friendship between Israel and the U.S.

What happens now? Without doubt, Obama's peace proposal based on the borders of 1967 was a bold stroke that shocked Netanyahu. No less bold was the Israeli leader's rebuttal within twenty four hours in the White House, at a time the Jewish state was in dire need of American support to block the Palestinian diplomatic juggernaut at the UN General Assembly in September. The fact is that Netanyahu had no choice on the border issue. All Israeli prime ministers, including Left wingers including Yitzak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak have opposed a return to the lines of 1967, once termed the 'Auschwitz borders' by former Foreign Minister Abba Eban. In fact, no less than General Earl Wheeler, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff stated on June 29, 1967: 'From a military point of view, Israel would require the retention of some captured Arab territory in order to provide militarily defensible borders'. At the time, President Lyndon Johnson had sent a team of senior U.S. officers who concluded that Israel would need to control the mountain ridge overlooking the Jordan River.

Seven years later, Lord Caradon, who served as British Ambassador to the UN in 1967, explained why Security Council Resolution 242 did not stipulate an Israeli withdrawal from all 'the' West Bank territory:  'It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to the positions of June 4th, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial. After all, they were just the places where the soldiers of each side happened to be on the day the fighting stopped in 1948. They were just armistice lines. That's why we didn't demand that the Israelis return to them'.

President George W. Bush

And more recently, the letter by U.S. President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of April 14, 2004: 'As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949' (same lines as June 4th, 1967).

You don't have to be a military expert or Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff to realize that a country nine miles wide is a tempting target for its enemies or that it is 'unrealistic'. It is possible that President Obama will further elaborate on this when he addresses the AIPAC lobby shortly and clarify what he had in mind by mutually agreed land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians. In any case, there is a wall to wall consensus in Israel against returning to the 1967 lines and accepting large numbers of Palestinian refugees, if any at all. On the other hand, the highly contentious issue of settlement building in Judea and Samaria, may now have gone by the board. The shock effect of Obama's speech on the other crucial topics has shrunk settlements into near oblivion in the public discourse.

After the President dropped his bombshell of 1967 borders there was no need for him to even mention settlements while clearly the Prime Minister had more pressing points to make. And indeed, even Netanyahu's critics at home will admit the Prime Minister presented a very strong case in what turned into an eloquent and convincing soliloquy about the Jewish people's four thousand year old saga to a modern day state that is fighting for its survival. Netanyahu appeared to be speaking from the heart, weighing every word he was saying to the leader of the world and to the American people and yet he appeared fully aware that he was telling Obama: 'This we will not do, even if you say so! We are not going to risk national suicide!'

Netanyahu was obliged to confront some aspects of Obama's proposals but when he addresses the U.S. Congress, the Israeli leader can be expected to stress the ties that bind the two nations rather than the political differences with the administration. Nonetheless, it will be incumbent on the Prime Minister to stress his determination to seek a peace accord with the Palestinians, as difficult as it may be. This will be imperative after taking on Obama. In this vein, the Prime Minister would do well to consider an official settlement freeze at least for the duration of the renewed peace effort. He could fall back on Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin's settlement 'moratorium' during peace negotiations with Egypt's President Anwar Sadat. It may be that Obama's tough stance on borders has forced Netanyahu to jettison settlements for the sake of gaining U.S. coordination on Israel's crucial security requirements.

Mahmoud Abbas (Abu-Mazen)

What follow-up, if any, does Obama have planned after unveiling such an ambitious peace proposal and after pouring scorn on the Palestinian attempt to delegitimise Israel and to seek statehood recognition by the UN General Assembly? That remains to be seen. First off, the President has said that President Mahmoud Abbas has some explaining to do about Hamas, a strange bedfellow indeed, if Abbas sincerely seeks peace. On this, Netanyahu and Obama did see eye to eye. Later' Israeli Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser told reporters in Washington there was no crisis with the U.S. President. But how will Netanyahu's apparent backing away from the Likud's traditional 'Land of Israel' ideology play with his Likud party back home that is, by and large, opposed to the two state solution? Likud Cabinet Minister Michael Eitan has now told Israel Radio that there has been a gradual shift taking place among the rank and file who are beginning to realize that Israel must end the 'occupation that runs counter to international and even Israeli law'. They also understood that not only the U.S. but also the international community expect Netanyahu to provide a solution. In Eitan's view, Netanyahu will be able to return home and mobilize the Likud and his Right wing coalition in support of his more flexible position, that the PM revealed in his Knesset speech that referred solely to 'settlement blocs in Judea & Samaria' without mentioning other West Bank settlements.

Be that as it may, hardline Likud cabinet ministers such as Benny Begin, Silvan Shalom and Moshe Yaalon can be expected to dig in their heels. But after taking on the U.S. President in word, Netanyahu will also be expected to deliver by deed. The Israeli leader accepted the two-state solution in his famous Bar Ilan speech of nearly two years ago, but then was perceived as doing little to promote it by continuing settlement building, albeit on a reduced scale. This enabled Palestinian President to gain the moral high ground after he cracked down on West Bank terrorism. After his six point speech in the Knesset and his apparent defusing of a bitter crisis with Obama, by focusing on security and not settlements, Netanyahu may have started laying the groundwork for a future National Unity government.

Kadimah Knesset Member Avi Dichter, a former Shabak security chief, has said that if Netanyahu means business about the six points, not only Kadimah but also Labor and some members of the far Left Meretz party would have no trouble joining a Netanyahu coaliton. In light of this week's developments and the upcoming battle in the UN General Assembly this fall, such a move may gain growing support in Israel. Left winger Yossi Beilin, a prominent peace activist, has said that recent opinion polls indicate that 65% of Israelis now favor wide-ranging concessions for a real peace settlement with the Palestinians. As for President Mahmoud Abbas he apparently feels he is now in the driver's seat and will push full steam ahead for General Assembly recognition of a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines. In the Knesset, Kadimah MK Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF Chief of Staff who now chairs the Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee, has issued a sombre warning. Mofaz has said the General Assembly's recognition of a Palestinian state on the lines of 1967 could trigger a violent Arab reaction against Israel.

To end on a more positive note, while Netanyahu was flying to Washington, a group of four very prominent Israeli officials made a unique trip to Cairo to meet with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil El Araby for a discussion on the Arab League peace initiative of 2002. The unofficial delegation, that did not receive the PM's blessing, is campaigning for Israel to launch a credible diplomatic initiative. They were warmly received by the Egyptian Foreign Minister who reassured them that Cairo was determined to honor its international accords, including its peace treaty with Israel. The fact that Obama has pledged to provide the new Egyptian regime with some U.S. and international economic assistance will serve to shore up the peace treaty - Cairo is interested in getting all the economic aid it can in light of its financial plight following the recent upheaval that has wiped out tourism, one of the country's mainstays.

David Essing

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