Sunday, June 14, 2009

Negotiating with Netanyahu may be tough but when did talking become the problem?

What's most curious about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's endorsement of a Palestinian state Sunday was not the most surprising thing, that the right-wing leader offered a state at all -- but that officials of the West Bank and Gaza government reacted with such vehement opposition. Netanyahu's statement about accepting a Palestinian state -- albeit with conditions the Palestinian leaders obvious found unacceptable -- marked a reversal of his repeatedly stated rejection of statehood for the residents of the Israeli-occupied territories. Netanyahu's conservative approach to the Palestinians was why he was able to form a coalition to become prime minister after the February election. But pressure from the new U.S. government apparently convinced him to change his stance, presented in a speech at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, according to the Reuters international news service. "If we receive this guarantee regarding demilitarization and Israel's security needs, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state," Netanyahu said in Sunday's speech. Yet instead of seeing the new Israeli position as a potential breakthrough that could lead to statehood as early as this year or 2010, the Palestinian leadership blithely rejected Netanyahu's initiative as "sabotaged," Reuters said. "Netanyahu's remarks have sabotaged all initiatives, paralyzed all efforts being made and challenges the Palestinian, Arab and American positions," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "The peace process has been moving at the speed of a tortoise," said Saeb Erekat, a PA official who has negotiated interim peace accords with the Israelis. "Tonight, Netanyahu has flipped it over on its back." Netanyahu's speech was widely seen as Israel's answer to U.S. President Barack Obama's speech 10 days ago in Egypt, in which Obama called for "a new beginning" in relations with the Moslem world. Obama advocated the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and for a halt to Israel's settlement building in the West Bank. The timing has never seemed better for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, yet the parties have rarely seemed further apart. In fact, the Palestinians are seriously divided amongst themselves, even to the point of setting up separate, diametrically opposed governments in the territories. They actually are in no position to negotiate with Israel, even though negotiations are precisely the way to proceed from this point. That may be the key to understanding where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at this point. The demands being made by the Palestinian leadership -- to set up a state without acknowledging Israel's right to exist, to have its capital inside the capital of an already existing country and to negotiate on behalf of people they are warring with, are so untenable as to be preposterous. There really must be a secure peace for the Palestinian people, even at the price of discomfort for Israel, but the current PA leadership does not want even that. The very existence of the current leadership is dependent upon maintaining conflict, not on reaching an agreement with Israel that will bring peace and prosperity to its people. Complaints about Israeli settlements are a distraction that exposes this unfortunate situation. Settlements are a problem only if the new Palestinian country intends to refuse to allow Jewish people to live in it. Otherwise, the borders of the new state could be drawn without regard to the settlements -- the ones that are in Israel would be part of Israel and the ones that are not would be part of the new country. That this possibility is not even being considered reveals that real peace between Israel and the new Palestinian country is not part of this equation. And the fact that an obviously astute political thinker like Obama does not seem to understand this is highly troubling.

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