Analysis: PM's first diplomatic challenge

Justified or not, it's up to him - not PA - to prove commitment to peace.

netanyahu 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was making his way to the Knesset Tuesday to present his government, a close confidant of his noted that in the United States, a new president has at least a few days of grace to relish the moment. "Here, Bibi didn't even have 10 seconds," he said. Indeed, as Netanyahu was putting the last-minute touches on his Knesset speech, he was interrupted constantly to deal with one political "crisis" after the next, from Silvan Shalom's spot around the cabinet table, to how many Shas ministers would be in the mini-security cabinet. Things didn't get any easier for Netanyahu when he finally delivered his speech. He was interrupted continuously by heckling, most vociferously by Shelly Yacimovich, who is ostensibly part of his coalition. And that was the greeting Netanyahu got on his home turf. Away - well, don't even ask. Czech Foreign Minister Karl Schwarzenberg, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, was quoted in a Czech daily Tuesday as saying that the EU was not happy with "some of the steps of the Israeli government, namely construction works close to Jerusalem, but also access to Gaza, which is today very limited." What was so significant about that remark, accompanied as it was by the announcement that an Israeli-EU summit envisioned under a new upgrade agreement was not now in the offing, was that it was made by Schwarzenberg, arguably one of Israel's best friends in Europe. Even more telling was that the remark was made regarding actions taken by a government that outgoing foreign minister Tzipi Livni would have had us believe was the absolute darling of the Western world. As for Netanyahu's government, Schwarzenberg had this to say: "The new Israeli government has not raised much excitement, either." And that's all before Netanyahu even showed up for Day One of his new job. The new prime minister's diplomatic task is daunting, and begins immediately. His most immediate challenge will be to persuade the US and Europe that he is not the peace obstacle they imagine. To read some of what has been written about the new government in the Western press, and to hear some of the statements of the world's leaders, were it not for Netanyahu's government, peace would be flowing like a roaring river - as if Iran wasn't destabilizing, Hizbullah wasn't threatening, and Hamas wasn't smuggling arms and planning to kidnap IDF soldiers and kill Israelis. The main problem, to listen to Schwarzenberg, is the lack of enthusiasm engendered by the Netanyahu government. In his address to the Knesset on Tuesday, Netanyahu said what he has said consistently since the elections - that peace was possible, that he would pursue it, that he had no desire to rule over any Palestinians, and that in his vision of a permanent agreement with them, they would have complete control over their lives, except over those aspects that could threaten Israel. But the world is not buying it, so Netanyahu's most important job right now is to convince the US and the fair-minded in Europe of his sincerity. For his own reasons, Netanyahu remains allergic to uttering the phrase "two states for two peoples," even though what he has in mind seems to be a Palestinian entity that has all the trappings of a state, except for those accouterments that could threaten Israel: an army, the right to form defense treaties, and full control over airspace, water and the electromagnetic spectrum. Netanyahu told the Knesset that he would engage with the Palestinians on three levels simultaneously: on improving the Palestinian economy, enhancing Palestinian security capabilities, and conducting political negotiations. But what he must do immediately, if he wants to gain any semblance of an attentive ear in Washington and Europe, is to spell out in more detail what exactly he has in mind. Because of an antipathy many of the Western elites had toward Netanyahu in the past, because of his coalition partners, because of the way he is portrayed in the Israeli media, Netanyahu ascends to the premiership with the burden of proving an interest in peace on his shoulders, and not - ironically - on the shoulders of the Palestinians. Justified or not, that's the reality. Netanyahu's first order of business needs to be to convince the world that he is serious about peace. If he can do that, then it will be easier for him to enlist their help in dealing with all the other huge challenges facing him and the country: from Gaza, to Syria, to Iran.