By JEFF BARAK
President Shimon Peres will no doubt allow himself a small smile of satisfaction tomorrow at being the first Israeli leader to meet US President Barack Obama at the White House, but there is more than a touch of bitter irony in our elder statesman serving as a character witness for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
In 1996, when Netanyahu beat Peres by the slimmest of majorities in the country's first direct elections for prime minister, the nail in the Oslo process created by Peres was hammered home. Although the Palestinians must take the blame for failing to fight terror, Netanyahu also played a major part in ensuring a breakdown in trust through provocative acts such as the opening of the Western Wall tunnel and the building of Har Homa.
With Washington and the rest of the Western world suspicious of the new government, thanks in no small part to the stream of bellicose statements from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Peres is being wheeled out to smooth the waters before Netanyahu finally meets Obama. The fact that Obama has already met Jordan's King Abdullah II and is scheduled to meet PA President Mahmoud Abbas before Netanyahu makes an appearance in Washington clearly signals that Netanyahu is not the most highly anticipated guest in the new White House.
And so, just as Netanyahu needed the decimated Labor Party in his government to present a respectable face to the world, Peres too is being used by the prime minister to provide a moderate picture of Israel's policies and ensure a warmer reception when Netanyahu finally arrives in the US capital. In particular, Peres's remarks in Independence Day interviews that attacking Iran would only postpone, and not halt its ability to build an atom bomb, will no doubt have been noted with interest by Obama.
Unfortunately, Peres' remarks in favor of an international diplomatic campaign to prevent Iran's nuclearization, as opposed to unilateral Israeli military action, come in strong contrast to Netanyahu's own statements, such as his speech at the recent state ceremony on Holocaust Remembrance Day in which he warned "We will not allow the Holocaust deniers to perpetrate another holocaust against the Jewish people," and other speeches in which he has compared Iran to Nazi Germany and its leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Adolf Hitler.
LABOR'S LEADERS, meanwhile, seem so desperate to justify their sitting in Netanyahu's coalition that they are blithely ignoring the prime minister's saber-rattling statements toward Teheran, and also his initial insistence that the Palestinians first recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a prerequisite for any progress in the peace process. Instead, they are lining up to praise him, insisting that today's Netanyahu is not the bad old Bibi of 1996-1999.
"This guy is going to surprise people" says Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the minister of industry, trade and labor and party leader Ehud Barak's closest political ally. "I'm convinced that he'll come out with a diplomatic initiative and that this initiative will be based on the concept of two states for two peoples."
Defense Minister Barak himself has been quoted as saying Netanyahu today "is a more mature person" who understands "that it is impossible to leave things in a state of paralysis."
Barak and Ben-Eliezer say they are basing their comments on private conversations with Netanyahu and, of course, they have to justify to themselves, and their party members, why they decided to join the potentially most right-wing government in the country's history instead of choosing the honorable alternative of opposition. But for those of us not privy to cozy tete-a-tete's with the prime minister, we have to take Netanyahu at face value, where he shows no signs of being on the verge of leading a new diplomatic initiative to help bring peace to the region.
Although he did eventually backtrack on the idea that there could be no negotiations with the Palestinians without their first recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, it is clear from his clarifying statement that without such recognition "it will not be possible to advance the diplomatic process and reach a peace settlement" that Netanyahu is deeply skeptical of the possibility of a two-state solution.
At the end of the day, if there is to be true peace, there will have to be Palestinian, and wider Arab recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. But this recognition does not have to be a first step, and it is possible to understand why the Palestinians are not prepared to make such a statement before their existential issues, such as borders and refugees, have similarly been addressed. It is hard to avoid the impression that Netanyahu, in his raising his initial demand, was deliberately planting an obstacle to getting talks off the ground.
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton seems aware of this. Her blunt warning at the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee last month that "for Israel to get the kind of strong support it is looking for vis-a-vis Iran, it can't stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts. They go hand in hand," should prove a reminder to Netanyahu that despite the warm handshakes at this week's Obama-Peres meeting, he will be expected to bring more than just a smile with him when he visits the White House.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.
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