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Netanyahu's Quandary

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu Has Returned Home To 13% Boost In Israeli Public Opinion Poll

Palestinian President Rejects President Obama's Appeal Not To Seek Unilateral Recognition For Palestinian State At UN General Assembly In September

IsraCast Assessment: Prime Minister Netanyahu Will Require Solomonic Political Skills Both At Home & Abroad To Cope With The Current Internationalization of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

 Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has weathered his political storm with President Barack Obama in Washington. However there can be little doubt now that Israel's leader will be pressed by the U.S. and the international community to go beyond his readiness to give up 'some settlements' for a peace accord with the Palestinians. It should come as no surprise that by and large, Netanyahu's stirring speech to the U.S. Congress was also applauded by the Israeli public except for hardliners in and out of the Knesset. But if 'push comes to shove', America's foreign policy is determined by the White House and not the Congress. Analyst David Essing sums up the PM's momentous visit to Washington.

 What happens now after the standing ovation and the numerous rounds of applause for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the U.S. Congress and his run-in with President Barack Obama in front of the TV cameras? Netanyahu arrived back home saying the U.S. supports his basic positions that Palestinians must recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, on security borders and saying no to Hamas. Earlier, his aides claimed the Israeli leader had received overwhelming Congressional support for his peace program - they called it a 'fusion' of ideas that represented 'grass roots' support for Israel across America. Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser told Israel Radio: 'This Congressional tailwind should now enable the U.S. to persuade European countries not to support the Palestinian move at the UN General Assembly in September to recognize a Palestinian state on the lines of 1967'. (That boundary is actually similar to the old Armistice lines of 1949 - where the fighting ended after the Arab world launched a war of annihilation against the newly born Jewish state.)

In London, at a joint news conference with Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama declared: 'I strongly believe that for the Palestinians to take the United Nations route rather than the path of sitting and talking with the Israelis is a mistake'. In the President's view: 'What the UN is not going to be able to do is deliver a Palestinian state'. Apparently the President is worried that if the UNGA recognizes a Palestinian state on the 1967 line it will create unrealistic Palestinian expectations that cannot be met and this instability could spark a violent explosion.

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

Earlier in his AIPAC speech in Washington, Obama clarified that a permanent Israeli-Palestinian border would be different than the line of 1967 and needed to reflect changes on the ground, a reference to President George Bush's letter to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on settlement blocs. In London, Obama also reiterated that Netanyahu could not be expected to negotiate peace with the Palestinians, if Hamas was waiting for the opportunity to destroy the Jewish state. In response, Netanyahu told the U.S. Congress that he would be 'generous' in territorial negotiations with the Palestinians and that 'some settlements will end up beyond Israel's borders'. Now this was the first time, Netanyahu had ever made such a statement that is a bitter pill to swallow for Israeli Right wingers. Nevertheless, his Right wing Likud party, and the hardline coalition partners, are going along with it although it runs counter to their 'Land of Israel' ideology. In an obvious reference to the PM's comment that some settlements would wind up beyond the new border, Likud Cabinet Minister Silvan Shalom said that some of Netanyahu's positions had not been approved by the Likud Party. One settler spokesman actually accused Netanyahu of 'trading away' the 100,000 Jewish residents who live in settlements located outside of the settlement blocs. These riled Israelis warned: 'We will now make life tougher for Netanyahu!'

The big question is whether the Israeli leader has arrived back in Israel with the proverbial cup half-empty or half-full. In the Cabinet, both Defense Minister Ehad Barak and Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor praised the PM for presenting Israel's security requirements, while not slamming the door on his readiness to evacuate 'some settlements'. In other words, in spite of Netanyahu declaring 'NO' to Hamas, the return of Palestinian refugees and the partition of Jerusalem, Netanyahu has also signed on to the 'territory for peace' approach. Just how he might translate this into peace negotiations is another question. In any event, Obama's declaration in London appeared to indicate that despite the reported crisis between the two leaders, Netanyahu has not burnt his bridges with the U.S. President and that Washington has not abandoned the peace process.

Question: In the wake of what the Right wing views as a successful visit, despite the public fireworks between Netanyahu and Obama, could the two leaders have reached some quiet understanding to be revealed later when things have settled down? Bear in mind Israel is involved in at least three separate diplomatic tracks: Israel-U.S., Israel-Palestinians, and Israel and the international community where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has conducted a diplomatic war ever since Netanyahu took office more than two years ago. At this point, the challenge is to block the Palestinian gambit at the UNGA that would supercede direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. It would be the first step toward an imposed agreement that the Palestinians believe would be in their favor.

Tzipi Livni | Bibi Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)

In domestic politics, now that Netanyahu has accepted the territory for peace approach, the differences between Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni of Kadimah appear to have narrowed. Could this open the door to the formation of a broad national unity government? Not really. Kadimah spokesmen believe there is only a slim chance this is in the cards because the PM is not ready to risk his Right wing coalition by taking the bold steps now required by the Israeli government. It is worth noting the observation of Kadimah MK Avi Dichter, a former Shabak Security Chief, who disclosed that 90% of Israel's security fence on the West Bank is built along the 1967 lines. In addition, Dichter added that the security fence was begun in 2002 with the goal of blocking Palestinian terrorists who were wreaking havoc inside Israel and the course of the barrier was planned to map out Israel's future border with Palestine.

Another wild shot in the dark might be for Netanyahu to agree to a freeze on settlement building for the duration of renewed peace talks with Mahmoud Abbas, but on condition the Palestinian President tears up his reconciliation agreement with Hamas. This could shift some of the international pressure off Israel at the UN and on to the Palestinians. In any case, after consulting with the Palestinian leadership, Abbas has declared that he is determined to pursue his plan for UNGA recognition on the 1967 lines. Abbas apparently believes he has outmaneuvered Netanyahu and envoys a win-win situation.

As for Netanyahu he is now basking in a 13% boost in his performance rating after his trip to Washington. A poll by the Haaretz newspaper showed that 51% of Israelis feel the PM is doing a good job. Nonetheless, Netanyahu cannot ignore the endorsement by G-8 leaders of Obama's position on the 1967 border (with the land swaps). Netanyahu will not be able to rest on his laurels and rhetorical skills in the face of that UN resolution and its possible implications. The international community will be anticipating additional movement by Israel's Prime Minister. In the White House, Netanyahu told Obama: 'A peace based on illusions will crash eventually on the rocks of Middle East reality'. This insight cuts both ways - Israel is faced for the first time with the internationalization of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict that demands an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank. In Jerusalem, Netanyahu will require Solomonic political skills to persuade his Right wing supporters to accept the 'painful decisions' and the 'generous peace offer' he promised in Washington. The world will now be watching and waiting.

David Essing

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