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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's trip to Washington and Paris this week had a single, overriding goal: overcoming a stubborn credibility gap Israel seems to suffer abroad over its stated desire to make peace with the Palestinians.
Signs of this gap are ubiquitous. There was much discussion about the White House's delay in scheduling a meeting between US President Barack Obama and Netanyahu, a meeting the prime minister has sought for weeks but could only secure as pressure built up in the media and among American Jews in the days before the visit.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, reflecting on what "we, the audience, know... to be true," opined over the weekend that "it is obvious that all the parties are just acting out the same old scenes, with the same old tired clichÃ©s - and that no one believes any of it anymore."
These "scenes" are the discussions over the start of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
"Right now we want it more than the parties," wrote Friedman. "They all have other priorities today. And by constantly injecting ourselves we've become their Novocain. We relieve all the political pain from the Arab and Israeli decision-makers by creating the impression in the minds of their publics that something serious is happening."
According to Friedman, this American involvement "enables the respective leaders to continue with their real priorities - which are all about holding power or pursuing ideological obsessions - while pretending to advance peace, without paying any political price."
More to the point, and without the pretense of speaking about both sides, were Tuesday's comments by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, just one day before Netanyahu lands in Paris to meet Kouchner's boss, President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"What really hurts me, and this shocks us, is that before, there used to be a great peace movement in Israel. There was a Left that made itself heard and a real desire for peace," Kouchner told France Inter radio, according to Reuters.
"It seems to me, and I hope that I am completely wrong, that this desire has completely vanished, as though people no longer believe in it," he added.
No mention of Palestinians; not even any distinction between Israel's people and government. It is the Israelis as a whole who no longer desire peace, who no longer have a "great peace movement," Kouchner explained.
That these are the messages greeting the prime minister's visits to the US and France are telling. And the underlying sentiment - one American diplomatic official recently described it as "Netanyahu talks about negotiations, but I don't believe he actually wants them" - is shared by the political elites of America and France.
Could Netanyahu be paying the price for the sins of his youth, when he was widely seen in his first term as prime minister as battling tooth and nail against what he saw as a too-rapid advance of peace negotiations? If so, the intentions of the Israeli people and government are being analyzed through the prism of 13-year-old politics.
Perhaps, then, the skepticism comes from Netanyahu's right-wing label. Yet both major Israeli withdrawals - Sinai and Gaza - were made by leaders of the Right.
Then do the Americans and French have intelligence information about the Netanyahu government's intentions that is unknown to the Israeli media, his left-wing coalition allies or the government's political enemies? Possible, but unlikely.
The more likely source for this skepticism seems to be an effort to will Israeli intransigence into being so as to match the current Palestinian inability - born of internal Palestinian politicking - to come to the negotiating table.
Diplomats (and, as with Thomas Friedman, those who spend most of their days with them,) are unused to seeing a "conflict" in which the tactically weaker side might be the more belligerent one. With the Palestinian Authority demanding a total settlement freeze as a precondition for discussions, diplomats are striving to find an equivalent Israeli unwillingness to reach peace.
In both Washington and Paris, Netanyahu aims to deny them that prize.
"Peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors would give us one immediate thing: It would spare our children the horrors of war, it would spare our grandchildren the horrors of war," he said with feeling in a Monday speech to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, just hours before his meeting with Obama.
In the speech to American Jewry's largest umbrella body, Netanyahu took pains to make his desire for peace sound authentic, emotional and personal.
"If you've been through the horrors of war - and I have - you understand what a great gift [peace] is to ourselves, to our children, to our neighbors' children," he said. "And peace could also usher in a new era of tremendous economic progress for the benefit of everybody in the Middle East. I think people are beginning to see that - incomplete[ly], a beginning, a start."
He noted Israel's past achievements in this regard: "We've already signed peace agreements, two of them, [with] Egypt and Jordan, and we're eager to achieve peace with all of them, especially the Palestinians."
And just in case his audience didn't get the message: "I want to make this clear. My goal is not to have endless negotiations, my goal is not negotiations for the sake of negotiations. My goal is to achieve a permanent peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, and soon. I cannot be more emphatic on this point."
On Tuesday, the day after the Netanyahu-Obama tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel offered the only real unscripted comments about what went on at the summit meeting. In a speech to the Jewish federations' conference, he said only that the meeting had been "good" and that Netanyahu was a man who seemed to genuinely want peace.
One down. Now on to Paris.
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