Decision time for the PM

Abbas' readiness puts pressure on Netanyahu.

July 1, 2010 21:15
4 minute read.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addresses the pr

binyamin netanyahu 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s three-hour-long meeting with reporters from the Hebrew press this week in Ramallah can be seen as an attempt – quite possibly with heavy US encouragement – to reach out to the Israeli public. There was nothing particularly new in what Abbas had to say. But the general impression that the PA head will most likely have succeeded in conveying to the Americans is that he is showing a readiness to push ahead with negotiations on the final-status issues of security and borders, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has proffered nothing but a wall of silence. “We have yet to receive a sign from Netanyahu on progress,” Abbas said.

The PA president’s calculated outreach stands in sharp contrast to the Netanyahu government’s foreign policy stance, which seems to be becoming increasingly incoherent as time goes by.

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Since the present government was created 15 months ago, a more than awkward reality has prevailed: The foreign minister has openly and honestly stated that he has no faith in the current negotiating effort, while this very formulation has been formally adopted by Netanyahu.

With Lieberman absenting himself from a process in which he declaredly has no faith, it has been Defense Minister Ehud Barak who has taken over much of the responsibility for peace negotiations, including via his relatively warm relations with members of the Obama administration. Barak, not Lieberman, met this week with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell. Barak, not Lieberman, will be meeting in the coming days with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

NOW, AS Netanyahu prepares for his trip to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama, Israel’s prime minister and foreign minister are at further odds – this time over how to deal with deteriorating diplomatic relations with Turkey.

Knowing that Lieberman would never agree to a conciliatory meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and that Davutoglu would also likely have rejected such a meeting, Netanyahu instead went behind Lieberman’s back and parceled out another of what should have been his areas of responsibility. Netanyahu’s decision to send Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to meet with Davutoglu may or may not drastically destabilize the coalition – it definitely miffed Lieberman, who knew nothing of the meeting in advance – but it is yet another indicator that Israeli diplomatic policy is dysfunctional.

Hitherto, the strange arrangement had proved relatively manageable. Lieberman focused much of his energies on improving ties with South America, Russia and the Baltic states, while leaving peace negotiations to Barak and Netanyahu. One of Lieberman’s recent successes is Cyprus, which has warmed relations with Israel, though probably more out of enmity for Turkey than love for Israel. Relations have improved with Bulgaria and Romania as well. And now Lieberman is courting Malta, one of the 27 European Union members. Still, any such gains have been eclipsed by the ongoing crisis with Turkey and by international concern over the stagnation on the Palestinian front.

There is no lack of ideas on how to move forward with the Palestinians. Lieberman, for one, has a distinctive plan for a two-state solution. Last week, the foreign minister publicized his ideas in an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, calling for an exchange of populated territories and a redrawing of the country’s borders so that many Israeli Arabs find themselves within the contours of a Palestinian state while Israel’s borders expand to include many Jews in settlements in the West Bank.

Barak has spoken recently of the need for an “assertive diplomatic policy” – and presumably is thinking of a variation of the Clinton parameters, which he accepted when he served as prime minister in 2000 and which Yasser Arafat rejected. For his part, our new diplomatic gobetween Ben-Eliezer supports negotiating with imprisoned Fatah murderer Marwan Barghouti.

From the key Israeli leader, the prime minister, however, there is silence. Critics from Left and Right assert that he is more preoccupied with his own political survival than with articulating a clear, coherent position that could both bring momentum to the negotiations and enable the international community to understand Israel’s needs.

But with the 10-month settlement building freeze slated to end in September, and Abbas adroitly portraying himself as waiting for the prime minister, Netanyahu is going to have to make some tough decisions – and to alienate some of the domestic and international players, with their conflicting agendas, whom he has sought simultaneously to court until now.

In fact, decision time might well come next week, when he sits down with Obama. For Israel’s sake, he had better go to the White House well prepared.

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