An opportunity to mend relations

New strategies needed to end Hamas rule.

Bibi smiling and pointing 311 ap (photo credit: Associated Press)
Bibi smiling and pointing 311 ap
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s meeting Tuesday with US President Barack Obama will give the two leaders a chance to mend strained relations.
Netanyahu will undoubtedly seek to be reassured of US backing for Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity, no longer taken for granted in Jerusalem. In May, at the conclusion of the review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Obama administration yielded to Arab pressure and signed a 40-page document that failed to mention Iran but singled out Israel as a treaty violator.
On the other hand, a UN Security Council vote for stiffer sanctions on Iran, followed up last month with additional, more stringent sanctions passed by Congress, helped allay Israeli misgivings about the intentions of the Obama administration. And as November 2’s mid-term elections for Senate and House seats approach, the US president – with an eye to the pro-Israel vote – has a political interest in warming relations, which hit a new low in March after the Ramat Shlomo fiasco.
Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama also presents a welcome opportunity to push for progress in talks with the Palestinians – progress that the prime minister has made clear Israel needs, as it seeks to guarantee its Jewish, democratic future alongside what it must be certain would be a peaceful, stable Palestinian state.
Arguably more than any other politician, Netanyahu is capable, either by juggling the disparate elements of the present coalition or by leading an alternative coalition with Kadima, of maintaining consensual Israeli support for substantive advances toward an accord with the Palestinian Authority – if, that is, the PA proves genuinely committed to reconciliation with the Jewish state. The prime minister has neutralized hard-line elements of the Likud’s Central Committee unwilling to acquiesce to territorial compromise, and managed on the eve of his departure to torpedo a bill that would have stripped him of the power to impose a further building moratorium in the West Bank should he so choose.
Meanwhile, security conditions in the West Bank are more encouraging than they have been for many years, if still fragile. Israel has removed numerous roadblocks and checkpoints, gradually giving more scope to the PA security forces and enabling freer movement of goods and people. Under PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the West Bank economy is thriving and a more transparent government bureaucracy is taking shape.
All that said, Israel, which would have to make wrenching territorial compromises in support of any accord, is still uncertain of the peacemaking credentials of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Fayyad. Fayyad is constructing the institutions of a Palestinian state, but would that state be committed to permanent peaceful relations with Israel? Abbas has reached out to American Jewish leaders and Israeli journalists recently, declaring Palestinian recognition of the historic Jewish link to this land, but his populace is still bombarded with PA TV reports claiming Palestinian rights throughout today’s Israel.
The recent flurry of reports concerning Abbas’s position regarding the status of the Western Wall is emblematic of Israeli concerns. The London-based Arab daily Al-Hayat reported Saturday that Abbas had accepted, in “written ideas” presented to US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, Israeli control at the Wall, a remnant of the destroyed Temple.
This was hardly a stellar concession, but that same day, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, rushed to deny it had been made, and an ideal opportunity for the PA to reach out to the Israeli mainstream – and recognize the Jewish people’s unique religious, cultural and historical ties to Jerusalem – was missed.
FOR ALL the obstacles to progress between Israel and the Abbas-led PA, however, the elephant in the room remains Hamas-controlled Gaza. Even if Israel and the PA managed to overcome their differences, and Abbas and Fayyad began publicly urging their people toward reconciliation with Israel – instead of encouraging boycotts and disseminating incitement against it – the Gaza conundrum, and the constant threat of a Hamas takeover in the West Bank, would remain.
Netanyahu could, perhaps, manage to convince his coalition partners to agree to keep in place a partial building freeze outside the large settlement blocs when the present moratorium expires, provided the PA agreed to direct talks and the US reiterated the Bush administration’s recognition that Israel would retain those blocs under any future agreement. But in parallel, with the blockade designed to weaken Hamas in Gaza now largely removed, new strategies must be developed toward ending Hamas’s rule. Otherwise, even if reaching an accord becomes possible, implementing it will not be.