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Netanyahu walking tough 370.(Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Washington Watch: Has Netanyahu turned dovish?
By the end of this week US Secretary of State John Kerry will have spent more time in Israel in four months than his predecessor did in the previous four years, but with just about as little to show for it.
By the end of this week US Secretary of State John Kerry will have spent more time in Israel in four months than his predecessor did in the previous four years, but with just about as little to show for it.

While Hillary Clinton and her special envoy were trying to launch peace negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian leaders demonstrated scant interest in even being in the same room, much less engaging in serious negotiations. The envoy, George Mitchell, soon quit in frustration.

There’s no sign of substantive change in either Israeli or Palestinian positions, but there has been a marked improvement in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s public approach. That can be traced to Obama’s reelection last November following Netanyahu’s clumsy and politically risky efforts to prevent it.

Two things dawned on Netanyahu the morning after: Obama is going to be around for another four years, and his backing is essential to Netanyahu’s top priority, preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. So if that means looking like he has converted from hawk to dove, so be it. It’s really a low-risk game in his view because he’s convinced the Palestinians won’t test him.

These days Netanyahu the peacenik is saying all the right things – even offering to sit in a tent halfway between Ramallah and Jerusalem and “negotiate for as long as it takes” to cut a deal with the Palestinians – while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sticks with his uncompromising preconditions and threatens to take Israel to the International Criminal Court.

Kerry, whose enthusiasm is not matched by Abbas or Netanyahu, keeps talking about the window of opportunity slamming shut, but that is a risky game that could encourage the rejectionists to resort to the kind of violence that in the past brought a bloody halt to any talks showing promise, or produce the despair and hopelessness that could spark another intifada.

After a Likud hardliner, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, raised questions about Netanyahu’s support for a two-state solution and said it couldn’t pass either Netanyahu’s coalition or the Knesset, the prime minister said he remains committed, but did nothing else. Instead of sacking Danon, as a strong leader would, he surrendered and reportedly even pulled out an internal party election later this month rather than face defeat by Danon.

Polls show Israelis support the two-state solution by two-to-one, but they also fear the Palestinians are not ready to accept a Jewish state next door. That view is reinforced not just by Hamas’ calls for Israel’s destruction but also by the PA itself in its media, maps, speeches and diplomacy. And for those like Abbas who say they want peace, Israelis ask, can they deliver? Palestinians have a similar question about Netanyahu. He endorsed Palestinian statehood four years ago in his Bar-Ilan University speech, but can he deliver? He has never written that pledge into the Likud platform or his coalition agreement.

Netanyahu has shown little interest in building a peace constituency on the Right, and his failure to give the PA the credit it deserves for the progress it has made in economic development, financial transparency, institution building, government reform and, most important, security cooperation further undermines the chances for renewed negotiations and his own claim to support that goal.

Kerry finds himself in the familiar position of wanting peace more than the parties themselves. Abbas clings to his old demands – a settlement freeze, 1967 lines as reference point for border negotiations, prisoner release – while brushing off the urgings of the Americans and even his European backers to agree to unconditional talks. Netanyahu has ratcheted up his talk about Israel’s willingness to return to the table without preconditions, but he has done little to show he means it.

Netanyahu seems to believe his more flexible sounding talk is critical to his effort to stay in Obama’s good graces after four years of friction, but that is unlikely to impress a president who is trying to bring a new realism to US foreign policy. Abbas is hanging tough in the hope that a frustrated Obama will produce a US plan closer to his own views and pressure Israel to accept it.

That would save Abbas from having to make any concessions to Israel, and enable him to explain that any compromises he made were to the big powers. But Obama has made it clear he has little stomach for pressuring Jerusalem, especially not with the prospects for success so scant.

The Palestinian leadership is reportedly worried they are losing the international sympathy they’ve accumulated while Netanyahu is winning the PR war by looking like he is ready for peace, while they appear to be stubborn holdouts. Moreover, Abbas fears accepting unconditional talks will mean he has surrendered to Netanyahu.

Palestinians need their European patrons to tell them the hard truths they need to hear, much as the United States has done for Israel, said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Instead, the EU’s silence has led Abbas to feel he has a free pass and tells Israelis the deck is stacked against it in the international community, he added.

The EU message to the PA should be, “The only way to achieve Palestinian statehood is through direct, unconditional talks with Israel,” Makovsky said. “The road to statehood runs through peace.”

And for Netanyahu, there is a similar message. Israeli business leaders have warned him that the lack of progress toward peace endangers the country’s economic future.

Kerry has said the absence of peace can lead to Israel’s “international isolation,” and Bill Clinton said “the two-state approach is vital to Israel’s survival as a democratic and Jewish state.”

Netanyahu has been called many things, but visionary is not one of them. There is serious doubt at home and abroad that, his own speeches notwithstanding, he is capable of leading the nation to peace. If his actions do not match his new rhetoric, he jeopardizes a critical relationship with the only ally who can help Israel avert the nightmare of a nuclear Iran.

©2013 DouglasMBloomfield
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