Analysis: Israel doing what Obama asked

Israeli officials insist that steps are being made intended to improve the atmosphere in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and are not part of any quid pro quo with the Palestinians.

US President Barack Obama (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama
(photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama gave an interview in mid-May to the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya network in which he said that it is not realistic to think that in the next year a “big, overarching deal” could be reached between Israel and the Palestinians.
Instead, he called for building “some trust around.”
He suggested, for example, “relieving the humanitarian suffering inside of Gaza and helping the ordinary people in Gaza to recover from the devastation that happened last year; if we can do more to create business opportunities and jobs inside the territories – if we can slowly rebuild that kind of trust, then I continue to believe that the logic of a two-state solution will reassert itself.”
In an interview this month, the president said that what was needed from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to show his commitment to a two-state solution was not words but “actions.”
Well, since February Israel has taken a series of steps – culminating in measures taken on Tuesday to ease life in the West Bank and Gaza during Ramadan – designed at doing precisely what Obama asked: change the atmosphere.
On Tuesday the IDF announced the use of shuttle buses from West Bank cities to the Temple Mount to take worshipers to prayer at the al-Aksa Mosque without the need for special permits, except for men under 40.
In addition, 500 West Bank Palestinians will be allowed to travel abroad through Ben-Gurion Airport, and 500 families from Gaza will be allowed to visit the West Bank.
In addition, Israel is allowing some Palestinian shop-owners on the Israeli side of Hebron to reopen their stores for the first time since the start of the second intifada in 2000.
Other gestures taken since February include the following:
• Authorizing a long-awaited water hookup for the new Palestinian city of Rawabi near Ramallah;
Doubling water supplies to the Gaza Strip from 5 million cubic meters to 10 million cubic meters annually;
• Easing the ban on the sale of produce from Gaza to Israel for the first time since 2007;
• Allowing armed and uniformed Palestinian policemen to operate in numerous communities around Jerusalem;
• Letting Palestinian doctors who work shifts and other hospital jobs in Israel – where immediate response time is essential – to drive vehicles with Palestinian license plates into the country for the first time in 15 years; and
• Releasing Palestinian tax revenue frozen after the Palestinians formally applied to join the International Criminal Court in January.
And, in addition, there have not been any high-profile announcements of new construction beyond the Green Line for a number of months.
While some might look at these steps and say they must be evidence of a fruitful back-channel with the Palestinians, Israeli officials insist that these steps are just intended to improve the atmosphere and are not part of any quid pro quo with the Palestinians.
Indeed, no reciprocal Palestinian steps are apparent, as they continue pushing forward in international forums with anti-Israel resolutions.
But if Israel can demonstrate that it is indeed taking steps to improve daily living conditions, to change the status quo for the better, it could take the wind out of the sails of the French, who are expected to bring a proposal to the UN Security Council before September defining the parameters of a two-state solution and setting a timeline for the end of negotiations and an IDF withdrawal.
If the French cannot be convinced to hold back on their resolution, then the hope is that these steps may convince Washington not to back it, with the argument being that Obama is calling for trust-building steps in lieu of being able to reach a comprehensive agreement, and Israel – at least – is taking some of those steps.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this analysis.