On Thursday (8 July), Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Council of Foreign Relations in New York.
The good news is that he said a peace deal with the Palestinians could be signed by next year. He stressed his own willingness to engage in the process, and repeated his call for direct negotiations with the Palestinians.
The bad news is that, though he stressed that a partner was needed in order to make this happen, he did not specify the main obstacle to a comprehensive agreement – the fact that Hamas rules in the Gaza Strip, and that Hamas is dead set against an accommodation with Israel
The speech to the Council of Foreign Relations was the concluding engagement in Netanyahu's trip to the US, and he returned to Israel that evening. During the day Netanyahu gave interviews to CNN, ABC and CBS news networks. In all his speaking engagements, Netanyahu reiterated his call for direct negotiations between Israel and the PA.
Netanyahu's visit to the US is generally considered successful in burying the strains of the past few months and re-establishing cordial relations between Israel and the USA. What remains uncertain is whether differences will eventually re-emerge over, for example, the issue of the settlement freeze.
Relying on hope rather than probability, in his speech to the Council of Foreign Relations Netanyahu dismissed the idea that an extension of the freeze should be a precondition for continued negotiations. The 10-month settlement freeze is due to expire on 27 September, and he hinted that the moratorium on West Bank construction would not be renewed. The likely impact of a renewal of settlement building on Arab opinion in general, and Palestinian opinion in particular, does not require much imagination.
The subject came up during an interview Netanyahu gave to Larry King on America's top-rated talk show. Asked if he would extend beyond September the 10-month moratorium on housing starts in settlements in the West Bank, Netanyahu said it was time for the Palestinians to drop preconditions for face-to-face talks.
"Let's just get into the talks," he said, "and one of the things we'll discuss right away is this issue of settlements and that's what I propose doing. I put on a temporary freeze – seven months passed by but the Palestinians didn’t come, and now they need another extension. It requires courage on the Palestinian side to stand up and do what the late president of Egypt Anwar Sadat did – to say 'It’s over, enough with the bloodshed.'"
Wisely, perhaps, Netanyahu did not spell out the fatal price Sadat* paid for his courage. It is, perhaps, going a little far to ask someone to put his neck willingly on the chopping block. No doubt Netanyahu also has the fate of his predecessor as Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin**, in mind from time to time.
Asked if he would sit down at the negotiating table with Hamas, Netanyahu said he "would sit down with anyone who recognizes our existence and is not calling for our destruction." Is that, King might have asked, a "yes" or a "no"? Of course what it represents is an invitation to Hamas to modify their unyielding approach to the idea of the two-state solution – and, incidentally, to their objection to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. This they oppose because the idea carries in its train recognition that Palestine must live alongside Israel – and it is to Israel's destruction that Hamas, alongside its sponsors Iran and Syria, and its brothers-in-arms Hezbollah, is dedicated.
Following his return to Israel, Netanyahu will, reports indicate, apply himself to taking the political steps necessary to have Kadima join his coalition government. Natan Eshel, the director of the Prime Minister's Bureau, met a number of days ago with a senior member of Kadima and passed on to him an itemised proposal for joining the coalition. According to a report in Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper yesterday, Netanyahu's offer would give Kadima head, Tzipi Livni, the role of Israel's chief negotiator in talks with the Palestinians. The presumption is that the PM does not intend to restructure his coalition or redraw its guidelines.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas was reported on Wednesday in the official Palestinian Authority daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida as supporting negotiations with Israel at present because it is the only option. However, the newspaper quotes Abbas as saying: "If you [Arab states] want war, and if all of you will fight Israel, we are in favour. But the Palestinians will not fight alone because they don't have the ability to do it."
Some might find this comment dispiriting. Personally, I find it quite hopeful. Whatever the motive for talking peace, let the two parties only talk it. As regards the proximity talks, and even the face-to-face negotiations that might follow, it is almost certain that they are seen by a significant proportion, perhaps even a majority, of Arab opinion as a step towards the ultimate goal of a Middle East somehow shorn of Israel.
My reaction? Let’s have the peace, and Israel will then have the task of defending the subsequent status quo. After all, on the other side of the fence, hard-line Israeli settlers may have a parallel ultimate objective somewhere in mind regarding the Arab population of the West Bank. Let both parties dream their dreams, but let realpolitik rule in the political sphere. The important thing is a peace agreement – the only way to achieve some sort of accommodation and stability. Who knows what benefits a period of peace might not yield for the region in the long-run? An unprecedented economic, financial and trade boom on the lines of Hong Kong or Singapore, through an Israel-led confederation including Jordan and Egypt, and even Lebanon and Syria, is not way outside the bounds of possibility.
* Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by an Islamist extremist
** Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist