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Uphill battle for renewed Mideast peace talks

 

Will the freeze freeze a peace deal?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is flanked by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Jerusalem on Sept. 15. Kobi Gideon/Flash 90

WASHINGTON – When the fat lady sings on Sept. 26, it may only be an intermission.

That’s the word from an array of Mideast experts across the political spectrum. They are predicting that the seeming intractability between Israel and the Palestinians over whether Israel extends a settlement moratorium beyond its end date will not scuttle the peace talks.

News Analysis

Instead, the observers say, the sides are likely employing the brinksmanship that has come to characterize Middle East peacemaking.

“Is this is a last-minute minuet before a compromise on both sides?” asked Steve Rosen, the former director of foreign policy at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “I don’t see the kind of anxiety you would associate with a collapse. They seem to be acting with something up their sleeve.”

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, also saw compromise in the offing.

“Neither party can afford to be seen as scuttling the talks,” he said.

Israelis and Palestinians both are speaking — off the record, at least — in terms of an imminent threat of rupture, just weeks after direct negotiations restarted. Such talk begs the question of why the Obama administration relaunched the talks with much fanfare if the sides were not ready to go.

“It’s almost inconceivable that the administration would have gone down this road with all the hype without push and pull for both sides” on the settlement issue, said Aaron David Miller, a longtime negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations, and now a fellow at The Woodrow Wilson Center.

Miller noted the praise lavished by Obama on the negotiators and the inclusion of the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders in the launch of the talks.

If the deadline scuttles the talks, he said, “it will go down as being one of the more boneheaded plays in the history of negotiations.”

Miller said he believes that the sides were bluffing when they hinted — or outright said — no compromise was possible. (See page 32.)

Each side has sent out mixed signals. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said last week that there was “no choice” but to go ahead with talks, before meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the same time, his aides were leaking to the media that continuing the talks depended on an extension of the moratorium on Israeli construction in the settlements.

Israeli officials have suggested that they are preparing some kind of extension by telling American Jewish groups that they will need their backing when the Israeli settlement movement reacts adversely to a building freeze beyond Sept. 26.

On the other hand, in a conference call Monday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not mention the possibility of a compromise. And his top aide, Ron Dermer, made it sound as if Israeli officials were bracing for a period of tensions over the settlement issue.

“We might have to agree to disagree for the next few months,” Dermer said on the issue of settlements. The carrot for the Palestinians, he said, was a final-status agreement that would put both sides past the settlement issue.

The question is how to get past the looming Sept. 26 date — or at least Sept. 30, when Israel’s Sukkot holidays end and the construction industry returns to work.

Ibish predicted that Abbas and his negotiators could live with Israel moving ahead with the building starts that have been put on hold for 10 months, when Netanyahu imposed the moratorium — as many as 2,000, according to an Americans for Peace Now analysis — but only if the Netanyahu government did not launch major new projects.

“Whatever the Israelis say, no one is going to believe it because of the grandfathering built in” to the moratorium, Ibish said. “What’s important that the Israelis don’t do anything further to radically alter the landscape.”

That would include holding back on major starts outside the “consensus areas,” settlement blocks adjacent to Israel that are likely to be incorporated in a final deal in exchange for land swaps. According to this view, it would also mean no building in a corridor between Jerusalem and the west bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim that would choke off the main north-south route; no land appropriations; and no building in eastern Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods.

Rosen, who directs the Middle East Forum’s Washington project, said an out may be Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader who is visiting Washington and New York to meet with U.S. and United Nations officials.

As defense minister, Barak has veto over new initiatives: He could nix them while the Palestinians look the other way regarding settlement projects already in the pipeline. At the same time, Barak’s reputation as a go-it-alone dove could give Netanyahu cover with settlers. The prime minister could tell hawks that Barak is slightly out of control.

Meantime, each side is trying to extract as much as it can or concede as little as possible before talks continue, said Scott Lasensky, an analyst with the congressionally funded U.S. Institute of Peace who tracks the region.

“Brinksmanship is a hallmark of Arab-Israeli negotiation. There’s no doubt the question will go to the last minute with uncertainty,” he said. “There’s been some good will, there’s been a warming of ties, everyone has an interest in making sure that this is renewed.”

Brinksmanship, on the other hand, often develops a momentum of its own, and there’s a chance it could scuttle the talks by the deadline, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.

The risk now, Makovsky said, was that with the talks still in their early stages, the sides were more beholden to hard-line constituencies than they were to a breakthrough.

“They don’t know if a deal is reachable, so why alienate your constituencies if a deal isn’t reachable yet,” he said.

Stephen P. Cohen, another longtime Middle East watcher and backer of an Israeli-Palestinian deal who has consulted with members of the Obama foreign policy team, said the administration’s leverage was the imminence of a permanent-status deal.

“I think Bibi [Netanyahu] wants to make a substantive agreement that would convince Abu Mazen [Abbas] that it’s worth staying even though he hasn’t renewed the settlement freeze because the substantive agreement allows Abu Mazen to stay,” said Cohen, the president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development.

JTA

 
 

Rabin remembered

 

Youth and consequences

 

Local delegates laud this year’s GA

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UJA-NNJ GA delegation members, from left, Stuart Himmelfarb, Richard and Allyn Michaelson, Paula Shaiman, David and Gale S. Bindelglass, David Goodman, Rochelle Shoretz, Alan and Karen Scharfstein, Carol and Alan Silberstein, David Gad-Harf, Joan Krieger, two Hillel students, and Leonard Cole, at a reception Sunday night. Courtesy Stuart Himmelfarb

Thousands of Jewish communal leaders from around the world gathered earlier this week in New Orleans for the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, the biggest pow-wow of Jewish leaders in the world.

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey sent a 17-member delegation, led by co-chairs Gale S. and David Bindelglass of Franklin Lakes. The event was headlined by speeches from Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who both spoke of the strong U.S.-Israel relationship, but the conference centered on cultivating the next generation of Jewish leaders, and the local participants felt the push to get the younger leaders involved.

“The real focus of this year’s GA was on youth, the next generation,” said Alan Scharfstein, president of UJA-NNJ, who noted that more than 700 college students attended the conference through Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. “It was the youngest GA that I can certainly remember.”

“It just gave a new amount of added energy to the GA,” said David Gad-Harf, UJA-NNJ’s associate executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Leonard Cole, a Ridgewood resident who is a past chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a local proponent of Birthright Israel, praised the GA’s efforts to reach out to the younger leaders.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a strong push toward engagement of this younger generation,” he said.

The new push can also be seen through the lens of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which recently completed a strategic plan to shift its focus from promoting aliyah to enhancing Jewish identity in the diaspora.

“Certainly aliyah is an important part of the Jewish Agency’s mission,” Cole said, “though they understand that the greater danger to the Jewish people is assimilation and easier opportunities for Jews to leave the fold. Now it’s going to be a focus of the Jewish Agency to strengthen and enhance the Jewish identity of Jews everywhere.”

Natan Sharansky, chair of JAFI and a former Soviet dissident who spent years in Soviet prison, addressed the UJA-NNJ contingent during a private meeting, for the second year in a row.

“All of us recognized the honor and sense of privilege to be sitting in a room with this transcendent figure,” Cole said.

“It was moving,” Gad-Harf said, “how Sharansky articulated a vision of the future of the Jewish Agency and the role it will be playing to create a deeper sense of Jewish identity for young Jews and how that is essential to the future of the Jewish people.”

During his plenary speech, Netanyahu spoke strongly about the need for a “credible military threat” against Iran in order for any negotiations about its nuclear ambitions to bear fruit.

“He was very focused and very outspoken on the dangers of Iran and trying to make sure that the world takes Iran as seriously as Israel does in terms of the threat it creates, not only for Israel but for stability in the region and beyond,” Scharfstein said.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, had three goals, which Netanyahu touched upon, said Stuart Himmelfarb, chief marketing officer and director of its Berrie Fellows Leadership Program: To understand perils, to take advantage of all opportunities, and to forge unity within the Jewish people and the Jewish community.

“Netanyahu really addressed all three of those,” Himmelfarb said. “He spoke about the perils posed by Iran and the need for a coordinated response.”

When Netanyahu turned to the topic of the peace process with the Palestinians, he said that Israel recognizes the right of the Palestinian people to a Palestinian state and the Palestinians need to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a Jewish state, Himmelfarb reported.

Several Israeli policies concerning conversions, the loyalty oath, and religious equality have ruffled feathers in the diaspora lately.

“He made it clear that every Jew is welcome in Israel,” Himmelfarb said, adding that he thought Netanyahu was alluding to the Rotem bill in the Knesset that would redefine how Israel accepts conversions to Judaism. “He was just signaling his continued support for avoiding these kinds of divisive issues.”

Netanyahu has been a polarizing figure in Israel and the diaspora, but even those who disagree with his political stance praised his speech.

“Whether you agree or disagree with his views, I don’t think there’s a head of state on the planet today who can command the podium the way he does,” Gale Bindelglass said.

Netanyahu’s speech was not without controversy, as five protesters stood up at different points during the speech, shouting that Israel’s own actions contribute to the country’s potential delegitimization.

“It’s unfortunate people put the emphasis on five hecklers in a room with thousands of people,” said Scharfstein. “He was truly eloquent in making Israel’s case, both for Iran and the other subject that was very heavily discussed at the GA: the attempt to delegitimize Israel.”

The protesters did not accomplish anything, Himmelfarb said.

“It was really just a disruption that had no purpose,” he said. “I don’t think it helped in any way get any new items on the agenda.”

Biden, who addressed the GA separately from Netanyahu, spoke about the strong bond between the United States and Israel and his own relationship with the Jewish state dating back to the 1970s.

“I really thought Biden went out of his way to say the right things with energy and emotion and reassure the audience that the Obama administration got it,” Himmelfarb said.

What Biden said was not as important as the message he sent just with his presence at the GA, Gad-Harf said.
“His presence and the word of support that he presented to us were very meaningful.”

What separated this year’s GA from others, according to Gad-Harf, were the 1,500 attendees doing community service around the city on Monday.

“It was one of the main reasons they brought the GA to New Orleans,” he said, “to both remember and celebrate the role that the Jewish community played in helping to restore New Orleans after Katrina, and to underscore the importance of community service as part of Jewish communal life.”

Josh Lipowsky can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

 
 

American Jews plan relief efforts in wake of Israeli blaze

Netanyahu, Peres honor foreign rescue workers

JERUSALEM – Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu honored foreign rescue and fire fighting delegations that assisted in putting out the Carmel Forest fire.

During a ceremony Tuesday at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, the Israeli leaders presented certificates of appreciation and awards to the heads of each foreign rescue delegation for their efforts and assistance in extinguishing the fire.

Some 300 members of the delegations participated in the event, including firefighters, pilots, emergency response experts and ambassadors from 10 countries. The delegations represented Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Britain, United States, Russia, Jordan, Turkey, and the Palestinian Authority, according to the president’s office.

“Thank you for your mission which is neither diplomatic nor foreign relations but rather expresses the highest form of human responsibility,” Peres told the participants.

“In helping us douse the flames, you have warmed the hearts of the entire nation and you have shown us that we are not alone,” Netanyahu said. “You have shown us that around the world there are people of good will that will help us in our hour of need. I believe that this rapid international response can be a model for future cooperation in our region. I thank each and every one of you for your courage, your dedication and your friendship. The people of Israel, an ancient people with a long memory, will never forget what you have done for us.”

Christos Oikonomou, head of the 70-member Greek rescue delegation, spoke on behalf of all of the foreign teams, saying in part, “On behalf of those who contributed in the fighting of the fires in the Mount Carmel region of the last few days, I wish to express our deepest sorrow and profound sympathy to the relatives of the victims. At the same time I wish to express our deep satisfaction and pride for being able to assist our Israeli colleagues in their tremendous struggle to control the fire. Real friends speak with their deeds. We are your friends and that’s what we tried to do.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Call Bibi’s bluff

 

Ehud Barak quits Labor

Political betrayal or precursor to something bigger?

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Defense Minister Ehud Barak announcing his intention to quit the Labor Party he heads to form a new faction, called Independence, on Jan. 17. Photo by Abir Sultan/Flash90

JERUSALEM – Was it an act of political self-preservation, a feat of political destruction, or a bid to stabilize Israel’s government ahead of some dramatic move?

And for Israel’s Labor Party, was it another sign of the once-leading party’s demise, or a precursor to a revival and the ideals for which it stands?

What’s certain is that Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision this week to quit Labor, which he had headed until Monday, has sent shock waves throughout the Israeli political establishment.

News Analysis

Ironically, the split of Labor — until this week a part of the Israeli government but now in the opposition — may yet strengthen the coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak’s decision to quit Labor and found a new political party along with four other Labor defectors leaves Netanyahu with eight fewer members in his coalition, but the 66 who remain are considered far more stable than the 74 he had pre-defection.

Before Barak’s dramatic announcement, Labor was threatening to withdraw all 13 of its Knesset members unless Netanyahu could show real progress in peacemaking with the Palestinians. That would have left the prime minister with only 61 coalition members, the vast majority right-wingers and the minimum necessary to stay prime minister in the 120-seat Knesset. Such a narrow coalition would have opened up Netanyahu to harsh domestic and international criticism for leading a perceived hard-line government.

Now, in what appears to have been a coordinated move, Netanyahu and Barak have pulled the rug out from under the feet of their opponents. With a more stable coalition, Netanyahu almost certainly has secured a full term in office, until 2013. Barak pre-empted attempts to oust him as Labor leader and force him to leave the Defense Ministry by cutting a deal in which he can stay on as defense minister after leaving Labor.

Many Israelis on the left and right viewed Barak’s move with deep skepticism. The new party he heads, called Atzmaut, which means Independence, has a hazy future other than the assurance of four ministerial berths in Netanyahu’s government and the chairmanship of a Knesset committee.

The leader of Israel’s opposition, Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, called it the “dirtiest and ugliest maneuver” in Israel’s political history. Her own party was a breakaway from Likud in November 2005, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon led an exodus of moderates, including Livni, from the Likud.

The regional implications of the upgraded Netanyahu-Barak partnership could be far reaching.

It would appear that the peace process with the Palestinians is over, as the more dovish members of Netanyahu’s coalition have exited. Even if Netanyahu wanted to cut a deal with the Palestinians, his remaining coalition partners likely would block it.

Barak and Netanyahu, however, put a much different gloss on things. Until now, the Palestinians had been hoping for the Israeli government to fall and be replaced by one more amenable to their demands, representatives of the two men argue, and this has kept the Palestinians away from serious peace talks. Now, with a more stable government, the Palestinians will see this is who they have to deal with for the foreseeable future and may become more serious about returning to the negotiating table.

Furthermore, Netanyahu and Barak confidants have been dropping broad hints that a new Israeli peace initiative is in the offing, suggesting that this is part of a Netanyahu-Barak understanding.

There is another theory for Barak’s move: that Netanyahu is seriously contemplating a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear installations and believes he needs Barak at his side. According to this line of thinking, with the Labor Party threatening to force Barak to leave the government, Netanyahu could have found himself with a new defense minister who was less inclined to attack Iran. The front-runner would have been the Likud’s Moshe (Boogie) Yaalon, a super-hawk on the Palestinian issue but very cautious about striking Iran.

It would be understandable, commentators said, if Barak’s decision was part of a bid to revive peace talks with the Palestinians or take action against Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons. But if not, the move is nothing more than a cynical act of political self-preservation.

In the media, Barak’s move was excoriated as a betrayal of those who voted for him and the party that had given him his chance in politics.

Barak’s leadership of Labor had been under severe threat. Would-be successors had called for an early party convention, expected to take place in late February or early March, with two issues on the agenda: deciding whether to stay in the government and setting a date for new leadership primaries. Within the space of a few months, Barak could have found himself out of the Defense Ministry and supplanted as party leader.

Barak says his new party will run in the next elections. But many Israelis are wondering if Barak really intends to make an electoral pact with Netanyahu and run on the Likud ticket.

Where does all this leave the Labor Party?

Many had accused Barak of ruining the party with his high-handed leadership style, lack of people skills, and loss of ideological direction — and now delivering the coup de grace by splitting the party in two. Many Israelis believe that the party, whose leaders founded and built the state, holding uninterrupted power for Israel’s first three decades, has run its course and that a new left-center constellation will rise from the ashes.

But the eight former ministers and Knesset members who have remained in the party insist that it could still be at the heart of a center-left revival.

One of the contenders for the party leadership, Yitzhak Herzog, said Barak’s departure has freed Labor of its biggest obstacle in the way of rehabilitation, and now the party can rebuild and recapture some of its former glory.

“Labor got rid of the hump on its back,” he declared.

Party activists, especially the young guard, say that with Barak gone, people will rejoin in droves.

Labor overcame its first serious hurdle on the way to rehabilitation when four Knesset members led by former party boss Amir Peretz — who had been considering a second split off from Labor — decided to stay. But the four have made it clear that unless there is a modicum of cooperation with them, they will leave at a later date, precipitating another major crisis.

Much will depend on who takes over as Labor’s leader. Early polls showed that Herzog enjoys 20 percent public support, with former party leader Amram Mitzna and Knesset member Shelly Yacimovich each with 18 percent.

But these polls are largely irrelevant. It is not clear who the final contenders for the Labor leadership will be, what new parties will emerge before the next elections, and what the center-left political map will look like.

More important, the results of the next election likely will be decided by how the new Netanyahu-Barak partnership fares. That has only just begun.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Pressure mounts on Palestinians to abandon U.N. statehood gambit

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An Arab man passes graffiti in the Gaza Strip town of Rafah. Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90/JTA

JERUSALEM – The pressure on Mahmoud Abbas to back down from plans to seek recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in September is intensifying.

Squeezed by a combination of concerted American pressure and intense Israeli diplomacy, some top Palestinian leaders are urging the Palestinian Authority’s president to drop his September plan.

Abbas, however, says he still intends to go ahead with the U.N. move, unless key international players can get serious peace talks going before then.

A pro-Western wing of the Palestinian leadership, led by P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and including former Palestinian envoy to the U.N. Nasser al-Kidwa, is advising Abbas to drop the U.N. initiative mainly for the sake of good relations with the United States.

They also fear that a U.N. resolution that fails to change anything on the ground could spark a new cycle of violence and retaliation, destroying years of state-building achievements, especially in the Palestinian economy and security forces.

To soften U.S. opposition, Palestinian supporters of the U.N. gambit, like Abbas and his chief negotiators Saeb Erakat and Nabil Shaath, are proposing sending an accompanying letter to the U.N. recognizing Israel in the 1967 borders and committing to resume negotiations immediately on a state-to-state basis. That, however, is unlikely to cut much ice.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has launched a worldwide campaign against U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state, instructing Israeli embassies across the globe to leave no stone unturned. Even in countries considered lost causes, diplomats have been ordered to do all they can to turn things around.

The aim of the intense Israeli diplomatic activity is twofold: first, to prevent the Palestinians from winning a two-thirds majority in the 192-member General Assembly. Then, if that fails, at least to win what Israeli officials are calling a “moral minority” — in which most Western countries, with their moral authority as democracies, vote against recognition of a Palestinian state.

“There is no possible configuration in which Israel wins the vote,” a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told JTA. “But if we can get that ‘moral minority,’ then the resolution will be reduced to nothing more than another U.N. anti-Israel piece of paper.”

As part of the campaign to win over the European democracies, Netanyahu has been warning European leaders that a U.N. resolution that enshrines the 1967 borders will kill off the peace process.

He argues that no Palestinian leader will be able to accept anything less, undermining the long-accepted principle that in any peace treaty the 1967 lines will have to be modified.

“It will have the same effect as the 1948 U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 had on the refugee issue,” the Netanyahu aide insisted, referring to the resolution that stipulated that Palestinian refugees wishing to return to home should be permitted to do so, and that compensation should be paid to those who do not.

“Everyone understands that in a peace treaty Palestinian refugees will return to Palestine, not to Israel,” the aide said. “But because of 194, you have a situation in which no Palestinian leader is ready to say so in public.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman goes further. In a mid-June meeting in Jerusalem with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, he warned that if the Palestinians made a unilateral approach to the United Nations, they would be in violation of the Oslo agreements, and Israel would no longer consider itself bound by them. Lieberman was picking up on the opinions of several leading Israeli legal experts, including former foreign ministry legal adviser Alan Baker.

Baker, who was closely involved with the Oslo negotiations, claims that by trying to get the international community to unilaterally impose Palestinian positions on Israel, the Palestinians are in breach of the 1995 Oslo interim agreement, which set up the Palestinian Authority and its presidency and parliament on the understanding that all remaining differences would be resolved through negotiations.

“The Palestinian approach to the U.N. violates the interim agreement and, in so doing, undermines the legal basis of the P.A. and all the other Palestinian institutions, creating the potential for legal chaos,” Baker told JTA.

Israel’s legal and diplomatic arguments have apparently struck a chord in some European capitals. Germany, Italy, and the European Parliament have all made their opposition to a unilateral Palestinian U.N. move clear.

Clearly, Abbas is trying to use the specter of September as a stick to get a resumption of peace talks on his terms. But as long as Hamas is part of the Palestinian government, the chances of talks being renewed are slim.

And unless Abbas is persuaded to back down at the 11th hour, the diplomatic battle is more likely to shape up over what comes next: Does U.N. recognition of Palestine isolate Israel, or does it backfire and leave the Palestinians worse off than before?

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Is social unrest behind Bibi’s switch on peace talks?

_JStandardWorld
Published: 12 August 2011
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Some analysts say demonstrations by Israelis protesting social inequalities and high living costs, as shown here in Tel Aviv on Aug. 6, are propelling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toward peace talks with the Palestinians. Dimai Vazinovich/Flash90

JERUSALEM – In the never-ending game of diplomatic chess played by Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week made a new move to try to outflank the Palestinians.

On Aug. 2, he said that Israel is ready to use the pre-1967 lines as a rough starting point for discussion of a Palestinian state — if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state and back down from their plan to petition the United Nations for statehood recognition in September.

News Analysis

Analysts are divided over whether this constitutes a real shift for Netanyahu or whether he’s merely trying to call the Palestinians’ bluff and gain the upper hand in the international arena — and at home.

On the one hand, merely articulating this new position appears to be a significant shift for the prime minister, who initially described those borders as “indefensible” when President Obama suggested in May that the pre-1967 lines — with agreed land swaps — should serve as the starting point for talks.

“It’s a very serious move,” said Bar-Ilan University political scientist Eytan Gilboa, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “For him it’s quite a concession to make because after Obama proposed his platform for renewing negotiations, Bibi rejected it. So he has changed his tune.”

Another, domestic element may be propelling Netanyahu toward peace talks with the Palestinians: the growing social movement that has seen massive demonstrations over the high cost of living in Israel, particularly housing prices. In the past few days, some 300,000 Israelis have turned out to protest across the country, and many are camped out in tents on Tel Aviv’s leafy Rothschild Boulevard. A few weeks ago, a Facebook-driven protest against the high prices of cottage cheese, an Israeli staple, also drew mass popular support, and the price subsequently dropped.

If Netanyahu wants to deal with the protests that have grown with each week, he “has to draw the one card that no one is expecting, the card that can outflank his opponents on every segment of the political spectrum,” Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston wrote last week: an immediate return to peace negotiations.

“This is the time,” Burston wrote. “His party and his government are laying back, uncharacteristically silent, waiting for him to take charge, make a move that is bold enough to meet the challenge of the nation’s broadest social movement in memory.”

Shmuel Sandler, another researcher at Bar-Ilan’s Begin-Sadat Center, said the protests in Israel have prompted Netanyahu’s coalition partners to rally behind him because they don’t want to fall prey to early elections, which paradoxically may strengthen the prime minister’s hand in peace negotiations by giving him enough flexibility to make some headway with the Palestinians despite right-wingers in his coalition who are wary about concessions.

It’s still not clear whether Netanyahu’s Aug. 2 statement represents a substantive shift or a tactical move. Tactically, the appearance of being flexible on the issue of the borders could help build international pressure on the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table and against a Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations.

“The Palestinians are so hard — they don’t want to budge on the issue of declaring Israel a Jewish state and they will never accept Israel as a Jewish state,” Sandler said. “This way, Bibi can’t be blamed if something does happen in September” at the United Nations. “He can’t be blamed for being too stiff and inflexible.”

Mark Heller, an expert at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, says Netanyahu is merely trying “to wiggle” between the parameters Obama laid out in May and Netanyahu’s longstanding position that talks with the Palestinians cannot be resumed with preconditions.

“The only way we can find out definitively if he’s serious is if Abu Mazen calls him on it,” Heller said of Mahmoud Abbas, using the Palestinian Authority president’s nom de guerre. “Either way, he has to be put to the test.”

In fact, it is just part of the “give and take of negotiations,” Heller said. “Bibi said no to Obama in May, and this is just building on that.”

In the meantime, however, Netanyahu’s statement has distracted attention from Abbas’ precondition to negotiations: a total freeze on construction in the settlements. Even with Netanyahu’s concession, Heller said, Abbas could still push on the construction issue.

“You really get the sense that neither side is particularly enthusiastic about talking to the other side, and there’s no real sense of urgency,” Heller said. “But no one wants to completely alienate the U.S. or home constituency.”

In the end, Gilboa said, despite Netanyahu’s new position, everyone’s hands are tied.

The Palestinians are determined to go to the United Nations, but Netanyahu’s statement makes a rejection of negotiations more difficult. Netanyahu has spent much time in recent months trying to convince European leaders to abstain from or oppose a unilateral Palestinian bid at the United Nations for statehood recognition. This week, he met with 19 visiting diplomats in Israel, urging them not to vote for unilateral recognition, saying it could make future negotiations more difficult.

The Europeans are key. Without European backing, a vote in favor of Palestinian statehood supported mostly by Muslim and developing countries would be seen as lacking in moral authority.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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