Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly finalizing proposals to bring Palestinians back to the peace talks, his eyes are focused on Washington, according to an Israeli political analyst.
“The issue is not so much Israeli-Palestinian relations as American-Israeli relations,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “What he is interested in is making sure that the world sees America and Israel as friends. That is more important than what Israel and the Palestinians are doing.
“We all know that negotiations with the Palestinians will lead nowhere,” he added. “What is most important is coordination with the U.S. Bibi wants to make sure he gets dinner the next time he comes to the White House.”
Although Netanyahu and President Barack Obama made a visible show of friendship when Netanyahu visited the White House in July — the two men held a 79-minute, one-on-one conversation in the Oval Office and shook hands repeatedly in front of cameras — the perceived Obama snub of Netanyahu in March is still vividly remembered in Israel.
At that time, a year and a half of deep policy differences between the two countries appeared to boil over when Obama left Netanyahu and his aides waiting in the Roosevelt Room while he went upstairs to the family quarters to dine with his wife and daughters. The visit ended with Obama forbidding any press photos of the two men together.
The Israeli newspaper Maariv reported Tuesday that Netanyahu is preparing a proposal to present to Obama next month. The paper said it would include a three-month freeze on all settlement building, followed by a nine-month partial freeze that would exempt building for natural growth in settlements.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted upon a resumption of a building freeze in return for renewed peace talks, which resumed last month but quickly ended with the expiration of an Israeli 10-month West Bank settlement building freeze.
Netanyahu declined to immediately extend the building freeze, for fear his coalition government would collapse. But it has been widely reported that Netanyahu has been working behind the scenes to win coalition support for his new proposal. Maariv said Netanyahu’s plan called for bringing into the coalition the more centrist Kadima Party should the right-wing Israel Beiteinu party leave to protest expanding the freeze.
But Tamir Sheafer, an associate professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he is not so sure Israel Beiteinu would leave. He pointed out that its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, who is also Israel’s foreign minister, had been behind proposed legislation requiring that a loyalty oath to be taken by those seeking Israeli citizenship.
Shaefer suggested that Netanyahu might have pushed for the bill in return for Lieberman staying in the coalition — old-fashioned political horse-trading.
“There is no other reason for it to happen now,” he said.
Maariv said details of Netanyahu’s plan — which Netanyahu’s office declined to confirm — would be made public after the state budget is passed. And it said the aim would be to restart talks in January.
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, questioned why the talks would not start in December. He said the Maariv scenario is just one of several that have been heard of late. Another would have Netanyahu renew the building freeze for six months to a year in settlements outside of what is referred to as the consensus settlements expected to be annexed by Israel.
Israeli and American officials have been quietly meeting for months on a formula that would keep the peace talks alive. Steinberg said Dennis Ross, an adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is the key American involved in the talks and that George Mitchell, the special U.S. envoy for Middle East peace, is in the background.
“Ross is the only person the Israelis take seriously and who they can do business with,” Steinberg said. “Netanyahu wants to find a framework that is acceptable to Obama and to Dennis Ross.”
Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, said the Maariv story “reflects the fact that it is known the Americans are still trying to work out a way to extend the freeze and renew the talks.”
“It seems to me that Bibi is more likely to be playing for time until after the elections when he might be in a stronger position with a Republican Congress,” Alpher said. “That’s another reason why this would appear to be a premature if not totally inaccurate report.”
Sheafer said he has not seen any sign that Netanyahu is ready to reach out to Kadima to invite it to join his coalition.
“That possibility has always been there and — from what I have heard from Netanyahu until now — he doesn’t want it,” he said.
Steinberg said he saw Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni speak recently and that she still speaks of wanting to be prime minister in a rotation government with Netanyahu.
“She still repeats the claim that she should have been prime minister because she is the head of the largest party in Israel,” he said. “If she is still arguing about that, we are quite far away from any substantive discussions” about Kadima joining the coalition.
Inbar said he believes that any proposal Netanyahu suggests to the White House to restart peace talks must also seek something in return from Obama.
“The issue is what will we get from America,” he said. “Maybe more weapons or money or better coordination on Iran. Perhaps acceptance of the Bush letter” that recognized that in a final peace settlement Israel would incorporate some settlements inside its borders.
Or perhaps, Inbar added, Netanyahu might get Obama to recognize Israel’s interest in keeping a permanent presence in the Jordan Valley for security purposes. Or he might get Obama to promise that the U.S. would veto any Palestinian attempt to get the United Nations Security Council to recognize a unilaterally declared Palestinian state in the West Bank, he said.
In recent days, Palestinian officials have repeated their threat to go to the UN for this purpose. Steinberg said the Palestinian threat of declaring themselves a state has been done before. He noted that former Palestinian President Yasir Arafat actually declared a state and that “the Europeans bought into it.”
“Israel said go ahead,” Steinberg recalled. “Things have changed since then and it would be harder for Israel to ignore it. But it is not considered by Israel to be much of a threat.”