Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A gleam of Mideast hope - Netanyahu defying expectations, appears more amenable to talking than the PA

(Shira Herzog-Globe and Mail). The Middle East Quartet meets in Brussels today and is likely to back the renewed U.S. effort to get Israeli-Palestinian talks under way. Barack Obama's national security adviser is also heading to the region. Sobered by its failure to show tangible results, Washington still wants to achieve a peace deal within two years. So far, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears more amenable to starting talks than his Palestinian counterpart.

More than one analyst has urged the U.S. to walk away because the two sides didn't seem to care enough to want to talk. Mr. Netanyahu finally imposed a partial, temporary moratorium on settlement construction but hurried to say he'd start again the day it expires, then included outlying settlements in the government's economic incentives package. In recent polls, Israelis say they support a deal but question Mr. Netanyahu's acceptance of a Palestinian state and the sincerity of his settlement moratorium.

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has refused to come to the table absent a full settlement freeze. Having already formally resigned his post, he has little to lose and is counting on Washington and the European Union to deliver terms he needs. Besides, he is vulnerable to a Hamas veto – violent or otherwise – at any time, so it's hard to consider him a reliable negotiating partner.

But despite a weary sense of déjà vu, things have changed in the past few months, and a fresh start may be possible. There's new activism on the Arab side: Egypt is actively engaged in mediating between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as between Hamas and Fatah. A broader Arab “umbrella” in support of talks is in the works, to give Mr. Abbas the backing he needs to enter the negotiating process.

Hamas is under new pressure: On the Egyptian side, the siege of Gaza is tightening with the construction of a steel wall to prevent smuggling of weapons and supplies, and the deal to free captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit – which it's counting on to bolster its position – hasn't yet materialized. This may push Hamas to agree to an Arab-brokered arrangement for shared government with Fatah, something neither the U.S. nor Israel wants but may have to live with.

In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad is committed to alleviating Israeli concerns by demonstrating that Palestinians can assume responsibility for security (successful in the limited areas in which handovers have been implemented).

But most significant is the shift in Mr. Netanyahu's position. He knows political success hinges on a process that's alive and scarred by the fallout of the United Nations-sponsored Goldstone report that criticized Israel's conduct in the Gaza war, and is painfully sensitive to the cumulative erosion in Israel's international position. He also knows he can't afford a clash with Washington, especially as long as the Iran file is alive.

The core of the U.S. effort is determining the framework that will allow negotiations to begin. This is more than technical foreplay. Despite Mr. Netanyahu's statements about “no preconditions,” both sides know they can't get started without protecting primary interests – and both are fighting for those interests even before they sit down.

For Mr. Netanyahu, these are Israel's security and its Jewish majority and character – meaning a demilitarized Palestinian state, maintaining major settlement blocs and no repatriation of Palestinian refugees from 1948. For Mr. Abbas, these are territory equivalent to the 1967 lines and a capital in Jerusalem.

The U.S. is working hard to provide needed assurances in side letters to both sides. Mr. Abbas is being courted by Mr. Mitchell, the Egyptians and the Saudis – but, so far, hasn't budged on his precondition.