Friday, November 27, 2009

Despite the criticism, Netanyahu is making real inroads towards peace

(PATRICK MARTIN-GlobeandMail).When it comes to making peace, no matter what initiative he announces or policy he implements, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is usually met with criticism from the Israeli left, the Israeli right and from Palestinians on all sides.

Yet a closer look at some of these policies and practices reveals a concerted effort to make real inroads.

Driving through the towns of the West Bank, one can see and feel the difference from conditions that existed only a few months ago. The cities of Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron all display new-found vitality.

Jenin has become a shopping destination for Israeli Arabs. Nablus's historic market is packed with Palestinians from all over the West Bank.

Ramallah and Hebron are bustling cities where people enjoy normal lives.

The reason is the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers in recent months and the elimination of many of the checkpoints between Palestinian communities.

The West Bank town of Bethlehem is seen in the background as labourers work on a construction site in Gilo, a Jewish settlement.

When Mr. Netanyahu was elected in February, he played down the importance of endless negotiations and urged what he called an economic peace, a simple improvement in the daily lives of Palestinians. He was greeted with derision.

To be sure, there remain terrible indignities and frustrations that Palestinians suffer in moving between certain areas, especially into Jerusalem, where the Israeli military presence continues. As well, Palestinians lack a real sense of permanent security and independence.

But daily life is a lot better than it has been for years.

In another controversial move, Mr. Netanyahu's government has quietly been negotiating a prisoner exchange with Hamas, the militant movement that has used terrorist tactics and currently holds an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, hostage.

Until recently, there has been little knowledge of what this deal might entail, but it now appears likely that among the hundreds of Palestinians to be released are major figures in the resistance.

These may include Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the intifadas and a candidate for president of the Palestinian Authority who is currently serving five life sentences for his part in ordering deadly attacks on Israelis.

Palestinians close to the Hamas leadership say the prisoner deal will include a partial lifting of Israel's blockade of Gaza to allow for the reconstruction of buildings and neighbourhoods destroyed during Israel's offensive one year ago.

This would appear to be a response to Hamas's announcement last weekend that it will no longer allow Gaza to be used as a base for rocket attacks on Israel. All this suggests the depth of the Netanyahu government's engagement with Hamas.

This week alone, Israel announced it is withdrawing its forces from the northern half of the town of Ghajar, a community on the Lebanese border that has been occupied since the end of the Israel-Lebanon war in 2006.

On Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu announced a 10-month freeze on construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. While critics can point to the many exceptions that will permit a great deal of construction to continue, it is a move in the direction of peace.

The Prime Minister appears to be sending a message to the Palestinians that the freeze is just the beginning if they choose to come to the table.

"I think he's signalling to his camp, and to the enemy, that he's serious about negotiations," says Moshe Ronen, chairman of the Canada-Israel Committee and a long-time friend of Mr. Netanyahu.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat dismissed Mr. Netanyahu's proposal, which he said contains "no change in the status quo of settlements, occupation and Israel's daily violations of international law."

The Israeli right denounced it for giving away too much and getting nothing in return.

But Mr. Netanyahu welcomes the criticism; it shows he's not being dictated to by either side. And what some see as lack of resolve can also be viewed as political pragmatism.

Says Mr. Ronen: "He's showing there's a lot on the table, and that he's willing to discuss almost anything."