Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Martin Indyk: Obama came to understand rather working with PM Netnayahu than working against him

(from interview on Haaretz with Natasha Mozgovaya).
Assuming Benjamin Netanyahu's government has no intention of extending the freeze on construction in the settlements in September, what impact might that have on direct talks?

I don't envy Netanyahu. The settlement freeze will be difficult for him to extend and difficult not to extend as well, especially if by then direct negotiations have begun. Then Israel will be responsible for blowing up the negotiations. And of course, if he does extend the settlement moratorium, he'll be assailed by the right wing, including members of his own party. It puts him between a rock and a hard place. I don't envy him in terms of how he will deal with this. But again - once the Palestinians are in direct negotiations, what Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] will particularly care about most - is to move quickly toward an agreement. I might be wrong, but I don't think that either Netanyahu or Abu Mazen - certainly not [U.S. President] Barak Obama, [U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton or [special envoy] George Mitchell - want to get waylaid again by an argument about settlements. I think they all want to focus on the main challenge which is to reach an agreement on what the borders of the Palestinian state will be. And then the settlement issue will be resolved as a result of that.

Dan Meridor recently proposed a kind of partial freeze - to continue building just in parts that are supposed to become Israeli territory after the agreement, plus East Jerusalem.

I don't know whether that will fly or not. It's an idea. It kind of goes back to an idea that [Ariel] Sharon and then [Ehud] Olmert tried to promote with the Bush administration. I can't make a judgment on whether it's going to work or not, but what's critical is that the parties now get into direct negotiations and through these direct negotiations start to establish the seriousness of each side. Netanyahu must be prepared to indicate how far he is willing to go, particularly on the territorial issue, in the proximity talks. If there is a sense of seriousness on both sides on the territorial issue, I think the settlement problem will be resolved.

Netanyahu's recent visit to Washington was described in some reports as a "restart" in relations by some and as a pre-midterm-elections gesture by others. Was it a success?

I think it was a success and I think people have been too cynical about this. Because it does look like Obama veered away from Israel in his first year and now he is veering back towards Israel in his second year. But I think that along the way, both President Obama and Netanyahu learned some important lessons, and this meeting was a reflection of what they learned. Obama, I think, came to understand that he can get a lot more through working with the Israeli prime-minister than working against him. And I think that Netanyahu came to understand that he needs, and can have, an American president at his side, if he is willing to be serious and to take the president into his confidence about what he is prepared to do in those negotiations. I think this meeting was a reflection of the fact that they both came to understand, each for his own reasons, that it's better to work with each other than against each other.

Do you think it's possible to reach an agreement with Netanyahu's current coalition?

Oh, I do. I long believed that this coalition will support him in going into negotiations and potentially coming out of negotiations with an agreement. I know that doesn't reflect conventional wisdom, but first of all, Netanyahu committed himself to this solution. Secondly, [Avigdor] Lieberman is prepared for a radical territorial compromise. My experience with Lieberman is that he is often underestimated because he often plays to his domestic audience. But it doesn't mean he won't support the agreement. His major requirement is separation, and that's what the agreement is about. And there is Shas, and for Shas, it's the matter of price. Its spiritual leader said peace is more important than territory. It doesn't mean it will be easy and there won't be drama and hysteria, but as long as he moves quickly and reaches an agreement before the next election time, he can bring an agreement.