Israel's standing internationally could be dependent in the near future on whether Netanyahu will be able to sell his plan to the new leader of the free world.
By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
Likud prime ministerial candidate Binyamin Netanyahu brought along five foreign policy advisers to his July 23 meeting with then-US presidential candidate Barack Obama at Jerusalem's King David Hotel.
For all but 10 minutes of that fateful meeting, the man who became America's president, and the man polls published Thursday predicted will be elected Israel's prime minister on February 10, discussed Netanyahu's "Economic Peace Plan."
The advisers reported after the meeting that Obama had displayed genuine enthusiasm for the plan. Obama might have just been polite and politically correct, or perhaps he was indeed open-minded about hearing an alternative view on how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Either way, Israel's standing internationally could be dependent in the near future on whether Netanyahu will be able to sell his plan to the new leader of the free world. Marketing the plan to skeptical Israeli voters ahead of the election could be just as hard. And then there are the Palestinians, whose leaders criticized the plan this week.
SO, WHAT is the "Economic Peace Plan" that could soon replace the Oslo/Road map/Annapolis process as Israel's diplomatic policy?
Netanyahu told a sympathetic audience at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly in Jerusalem on Wednesday that the plan calls for continuing diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, regional cooperation with Jordan and mass investment in the Palestinian Authority, in order to give the Palestinians an incentive to seek peace.
According to Netanyahu, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians had not succeeded because they were devoted to solving final-status issues like Jerusalem and refugees, and not to improving the lives of the Palestinian people. He proposed shifting the talks' focus to the economy, to make it easier to reach an agreement later on.
"What has been tried until now with negotiations that try to 'reach a deal on Jerusalem or bust' has led to failure, and it will again and again," Netanyahu told the crowd. "Economic development doesn't solve problems, but it mitigates them, and makes a stronger partner on the other side, because it gives them something to live for."
Netanyahu said he had several projects in mind for Arab cities in the West Bank and along the seam line that he would implement immediately upon becoming prime minister. His advisers revealed that he had specific ideas drawn up for tourism in Jericho and factories in Jenin and other Palestinian population centers, with goals of widening the Palestinian private sector, building independent civil society and making the Palestinian people less dependent on their political leadership.
In meetings with the quartet's Middle East mediator, former British prime minister Tony Blair, Netanyahu outlined the plan, and told him he would need his help in implementing it. Netanyahu likes to use Blair's success in Northern Ireland as proof that economic progress is needed for a political settlement. He believes Blair's past efforts to build up the Palestinian economy could be more successful with more support from the Israeli government.
NETANYAHU, WHO is credited with turning around the Israeli economy as finance minister, predicts that he can increase Palestinian economic growth by 10 percent a year. He talks about dramatic changes that would be evident to every Palestinian in the West Bank within six months and that would set an example for what could be done in the Gaza Strip with different leadership there.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu would continue talks with the Palestinian leadership, despite incorrect reports to the contrary, but they would focus on improving the Palestinian economy, and not on final-status issues like Jerusalem and refugees.
He does not know what advancements were made in the channels between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas and between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei, but he is eager to know what sacrifices the Palestinians agreed to make.
It has not been fleshed out yet in the Likud leader's inner circle, but it should not be a surprise if, in a Netanyahu administration, the Livni-Qurei channel continued, provided that Kadima joined a Likud-led government, and that she kept her current post and agreed to limit herself to advocating Netanyahu's policies.
At this stage, Netanyahu does not believe that the Palestinians are willing to compromise on key issues, and he has seen no evidence to the contrary. His advisers were disturbed by PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad's failure to mention Judaism when he spoke about the importance of Jerusalem to Islam and Christianity at the UN's interfaith peace conference this week.
When Netanyahu speaks about the end game in talks with the Palestinians, he stresses that he is not interested in governing them, or in preventing them from having self-determination. He would give them all sovereign powers, short of those that could endanger Israel, such as control over borders and water, or treaties with Israel's enemies. He would therefore emphasize the need for demilitarizing areas under Palestinian control.
Netanyahu wants the Jordanians to get more involved in economic cooperation with the West Bank, and eventually for the same to happen between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. A thriving economy in the West Bank could make such cooperation more palatable for Jordan.
ASKED ABOUT the difference between Netanyahu's Economic Peace Plan and President Shimon Peres's New Middle East, Netanyahu's advisers say his plan is practical, while Peres's is overly idealistic. Peres believes peace agreements could improve economic conditions in the region, while Netanyahu believes it is the other way around.
But there is no doubt that Netanyahu is starting to sound a lot more like the eternal optimist he defeated in the 1996 election, and a lot less like the prophet of doom he was criticized for being during the 2006 one - disparagement that turned to praise when much of what he said came true in the Second Lebanon War.
"Netanyahu in 1996 was more pessimistic than the country, because the country believed peace was around the corner, and he did not, since he was skeptical about Yasser Arafat's intentions," said Netanyahu adviser Ron Dermer. "Now he is more optimistic than the rest of Israelis, because he believes he can advance the process now, move war further away and bring peace closer. The skeptic has become an optimist."
Dermer compares the negotiations thus far to "arguing about what the kitchen on the 20th floor of a penthouse would look like when the cornerstone for the first 19 floors has not been built."
He says that economic progress in the West Bank could be the very cornerstone that could prevent a dangerous collapse in the talks, as happened after Camp David.
The Palestinian leadership has warned of just that if Netanyahu takes over. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned this week that Netanyahu's plan would close the door to any chance for peace, and Fayyad called the plan unfounded and naive.
"Even though I am an economist by profession, and I appreciate the importance of the economy very much, the solution is not to be found in money or in industrial zones. I am interested not in redefining the occupation, but in ending the occupation," Fayyad told Haaretz.
A senior Kadima official close to Livni said the Palestinian reaction was a sign of what the world would say about the plan. He warned that if the newly elected prime minister was seen as retreating in the diplomatic process, the international community would force problematic diplomatic plans on Israel.
"If the Palestinians are slamming the door in Bibi's face now, the world that talks to the Palestinians will too," the official said. "When Bibi sets the core issues aside as a first step and deals with an interim agreement and not a final-status agreement, it takes two basic pillars of negotiations for more than a decade and throws them in the garbage. Talking about economic peace without discussing core issues is like having talks with yourself."
But Netanyahu's advisers are convinced that he will be able to sell the plan to the world, and that the Palestinians would realize that rapid economic growth for them now is much more important than wasting more time deliberating on final-status issues. And he hopes he will have a honeymoon period to prove the skeptics wrong.
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs President Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the UN who attended the Netanyahu-Obama meeting, predicted that the Obama administration in Washington and the top leaders in Europe would be receptive to creating a new context for political engagement between Israel and the Palestinians after so many years of failure.
"After the peace process has been tried by two American presidents and six Israeli prime ministers and all came out empty-handed, there is a growing readiness in many parts of the world to try a different approach," Gold said. "It's not as though there is a legacy of success in the Arab-Israeli peace process that will bind the Obama team. Every new government has its own approach to peacemaking. We are confident that the world will be open to hearing Israel's ideas."
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