As he settles in after officially assuming the post of prime minister on Wednesday, Benjamin Netanyahu may quickly face his first challenge from George Mitchell, America’s special envoy to the Middle East.
“We can expect that Mitchell will be coming any day and put the issue of settlements on the table,” said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. “Then Netanyahu would have to reconcile between the rightwing elements of his government that oppose measures to restrict their growth and [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas, who wants to see the removal of illegal outposts.”
Complicating the matter this week, the new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said in a speech that Israel was not bound by commitments made at the 2007 multinational conference
in Annapolis, Md., to work toward a two-state solution.
“It has no validity,” said Lieberman. A Likud source later confirmed to Reuters that the new government intended to distance itself from the U.S. framework toward a Palestinian state.
The issue of the outposts is one former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon avoided because of his concentration on an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. His successor, Ehud Olmert, also avoided them after his order to evacuate the illegal outpost of Amona in February 2006 resulted in violent clashes that injured more than 200.
But David Makovsky, a senior fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute, suggested that one way to defuse the issue is for Israel and the Palestinians to sit down and draw up Israel’s permanent borders.
Makovsky explained that although neither President Barack Obama nor Netanyahu want to pick a fight with each other, “developments on the ground could create their own negative dynamic and things could get off track. So it would be useful if both had a set of understandings about such things as settlements. And what we saw from the Olmert-Abbas period is that the differences between the two sides over territory are pretty narrow.”
But because Israel is concerned about security in the West Bank should it withdraw its troops following the drawing up of permanent borders, Makovsky said the issues of security and borders should be decoupled — draw up borders first and only withdraw troops after security is assured.
“So the army would not leave tomorrow but we would have the demarcation of a border, which would end the issue of settlements for the first time since 1967,” he said.
Makovsky pointed out that about three-quarters of Israelis living in the West Bank — about 200,000 people — live in three large blocs of land that comprise less than 5 percent of the West Bank and that are primarily adjacent to Israel’s 1967 border. Once the borders are drawn, these areas would then be annexed to Israel, he said.
Israelis who live outside of those settlement blocs are not just those in small, illegal outposts but those in large communities such as Ariel and Elon Moreh, Makovsky noted, adding that they number nearly 80,000.
Abbas began applying pressure on Netanyahu the day he assumed office, reportedly saying Wednesday that Netanyahu “never believed in a two-state solution or accepted signed agreements and does not want to stop settlement activity.”
Steinberg suggested that Netanyahu might begin making gestures to the Palestinians in order to get Obama to reaffirm President George W. Bush’s 2004 letter in which he referred to the three main settlement blocs as being a part of Israel.
In his address inaugural address to the Knesset Tuesday, Netanyahu offered to launch negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on three separate tracks: economic, diplomatic and security.
Although refraining from speaking of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu said Israel does not want to rule Palestinians and that under the “permanent status agreement, the Palestinians will have all the authority to rule themselves.”
But Stephen P. Cohen, a national scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, said Netanyahu must make the “wise and courageous decision to work with [President Barack] Obama for a two-state solution. If he deceives rather than moves forward on the main issues, he will find himself more and more isolated” from the world community.
Noting that Netanyahu said Israel’s greatest danger is Iran and its attempt to “try to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” Cohen said the prime minister’s “first priority is to have the kind of relationship with the U.S., Egypt and Saudi Arabia that would allow the U.S. to consolidate a firm and powerful argument against Iran continuing” such development.
“That is only possible if Israel moves on the two-state solution,” Cohen said. “He has the support of the Labor Party, the American president and a commitment from the Arabs in their peace initiative [to make peace with Israel in return for Israeli-Palestinian peace]. The only question is whether he will do it.”
But Nathan Brown, director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, said a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not realistic at this time.
“You don’t have a Palestinian Authority capable of taking authoritarian positions for the Palestinians, and I don’t see any way of putting together a viable peace process that ends in a two-state solution,” he said.
Although Cohen argued that the path to resolving the Iranian crisis is an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, argued that the Iranian crisis must be solved before the Palestinian conflict can end.
“As long as Iran can arm, train and fund Hamas and Hezbollah, everything in the region is destabilized,” she said.
Asked about concerns regarding Netanyahu’s commitment to preventing settlement expansion, Mizrahi noted that in an interview this week in the Atlantic Monthly Netanyahu pointedly said that when he served as prime minister from 1996 until 1999, “I certainly didn’t build new settlements.”
She added that Netanyahu and Obama should get along well because they have “good personal chemistry and both are very direct leaders who have big visions and share a lot in common regarding goals and traits.”
Some analysts believe Netanyahu may have to decide soon whether to launch a military operation to stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. But Steven Spiegel, a political science professor at UCLA, said he does not believe time is quickly running out.
“You cannot act against Iran before its June 12 election and then you have to give Obamas’s new policy a chance to work,” he said. “It seems to me the president cannot begin his policy seriously until he knows who the next president is, so you are talking of late summer or early fall.”
Spiegel said Netanyahu “can’t precipitously attack when all of these policies are being initiated. Doing so would endanger Israel’s security… Netanyahu is trying to project an image of sobriety and being interested in peace and then early on attack Iran.”