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Debate Over How Far Bibi Can Go In Speech

Debate Over How Far Bibi Can Go In Speech

Bid to stave off ‘isolation’ would likely contain proposal for borders.

Under pressure from the United States and Europe, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working on a peace proposal that would pave the way for a Palestinian state with temporary borders.

But just how far-reaching his proposal will go is anybody’s guess.

“Nothing is finished,” Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu, told The Jewish Week. “Ideas are floating around and some ministers have their own views. He is absorbing them and the final product is not at all clear.”

Dan Schueftan, deputy director of the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University and a former adviser to two prime ministers, said Netanyahu must make a “serious suggestion of an interim phase [agreement] — perhaps with assurances regarding a final outcome — but he can’t promise a permanent settlement. The Palestinians don’t want it, and at the moment the Israeli public is apprehensive because of what is happening in the Arab world.”

Some are suggesting that Netanyahu announce his proposals before a joint session of Congress when he is in the United States for the annual AIPAC convention that begins May 22 in Washington. But Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was quoted Monday as urging Netanyahu to act within weeks to “move Israel out of its isolation.” He told Israel Radio that a speech before Congress in May “would be far too late.”

“The world will not accept that we continue to rule over another people after 43 years,” he said.

And Israel’s Intelligence Minister, Dan Meridor, suggested that unless Israel takes the initiative, the Palestinians would be before the United Nations General Assembly in September seeking world recognition of a Palestinian state whose border would be along Israel’s 1967 borders.

“We have to be proactive before calamity hits,” he said.

The idea of a Palestinian state with provisional borders has been floated before and rejected by the Palestinians. They have insisted that any agreement must include a resolution of such final-status issues as the Palestinian’s right of return to their former homes in Israel and the future of Jerusalem, which they want as the capital of their country.

Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the Palestinians have also maintained that no final agreement was possible without including Gaza, which is now controlled by the terrorist group Hamas.

“This [interim agreement] would allow them to negotiate because it would sidestep the Gaza issue,” he said. “It’s going to take the Palestinians a long time to deal with refugee claims and other issues because they are deeply rooted. Until then, this is the best they can do.”

But Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli deputy minister of defense and member of the Labor Party, said that if he were a Palestinian “I wouldn’t buy the idea of provisional borders — they would be idiots to accept it. It’s a trap. It would Kashmirize the situation.”

He was referring to the longstanding territorial dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

“The solution is known, and it involves both sides giving up their dream — for the Palestinians the dream of the return of refugees and for the Israelis the dream of all of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty,” he said. “The leaders on both sides need the courage to say this. I’m quite skeptical that [this] speech of the prime minister will bring any real redemption. If there is no solution we are doomed to a one-state solution, which is a disaster to the Zionist dream.”

Netanyahu said last week that the proposal he is developing to restart peace talks — which broke down last September after a unilateral Israeli freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank ended — would end the threat of a one-state solution.

“[A] bi-national state would be disastrous for Israel,” he was quoted as saying.

But some analysts are skeptical about Netanyahu’s ability to bring the Palestinians to the table. Ephraim Inbar, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said the Palestinians don’t want to be a peace partner because “they believe that eventually the international community will impose an agreement that is in accord with their wishes — so why bargain?”

“The Palestinians won’t accept anything except their demands,” he said. “There is no chance for an agreement with the Palestinians, and the world doesn’t want to hear the bad news. He [Netanyahu] may make a speech, but I don’t think it will be able to change anything. The Palestinians feel time is on their side. I think they are wrong, but it is what fuels their strategy. … Hopefully the Palestinians will do the job for us by saying no to everything we say.”

Inbar said that up until the now the world has not been willing to pressure the Palestinians, who are dependent on U.S. and European foreign aid.

Steinberg said he believes the Palestinians will at first reject whatever plan Netanyahu offers and that it will then be a “question of whether the U.S. has the power” to compel a positive Palestinian response.

“Will Netanyahu provide enough to satisfy the Americans without incurring unacceptable costs in terms of Israeli domestic politics?” Steinberg asked. “Europe has no input in this; it is an echo of the U.S. Netanyahu’s main purpose [in proposing an initiative] is to avoid a rift with the Obama administration. He is not going to have a great deal of Israeli domestic support.”

The plan Netanyahu needs to present is one that takes into consideration Israel’s security needs in light of the present turmoil in the Middle East, according to Jonathan Rynhold, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

He noted that when he took office two years ago, Netanyahu delivered a speech in which he “spoke of security and the Jewishness of the state; he did not emphasize settlements.”

Security was on Netanyahu’s mind when he visited the Jordan Valley this week and told reporters that in any future agreement, Israeli troops would remain on the Jordan River to keep terrorists and rockets from Tel Aviv, Haifa and the rest of the country. The Palestinians previously rejected an Israeli presence on the Jordan River.

There is some speculation that Netanyahu made the trip to the Jordan Valley to show Israelis the importance he gives to security prior to announcing a plan that would involve withdrawal from some settlements. He has already announced that Israeli troops would close all illegal outposts by the end of the year.

“If Netanyahu came forward with a plan to withdraw from a significant number of outlying settlements to allow Palestinian contiguity [for their state], that would be a plan that has legs,” Rynhold said. “It would be hard for the international community to say no to an Israeli withdrawal from settlements, even if the Palestinians did not like it. It would be hard for the Palestinians to then push for a state on the ’67 borders.”

Asked how many settlers would have to move, he said former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had spoken of 100,000.

“In an interim agreement, I can’t see fewer than half of that having to move,” Rynhold said. “Unless we are talking about a serious number of settlers, this proposal will not be seen as serious.”

Shoval pointed out that the unrest in the Middle East has made “America’s relationship with Israel more important than in the past. As a result, Israel may have to take some steps to make it easier for America to withstand pressure in other matters, even though this is not the main issue” facing the Middle East today.

Shoval said the U.S. must also understand that Israel’s security must be the “guiding principle” in any peace proposal.

“If the Palestinians continue to refuse to engage Israel in direct talks, and if America does not put enough pressure on the Palestinians, then the chances of reaching an agreement on the peace front will slowly fade away unless the Palestinian leadership gets in shape and resumes negotiations.”

But Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state, said that if Netanyahu’s interim proposal dealing with territory and security is to work, it needs three additional elements:

n there must be a freeze on all unilateral actions on the ground;

n Netanyahu must open private talks with the Palestinians to talk about the big issues;

n Netanyahu must publicly declare a date for the start of final-status talks.

“If these things were added to the initiative, he might have an easier job of selling it,” Miller said. “In view of the transformative nature of recent events, big events cause people to think about big things. For the prime minister to come out now with an initiative, it really has to be a home run. Anything that is short of truly stunning is not going to get people’s attention.”

But Schueftan of Haifa University said that although Netanyahu “understands he must move, I don’t think he can move at this stage. … In the present atmosphere, this is not the time for a major step that would alienate Israelis for no return whatsoever, because on the other side are Palestinians who are not seriously willing to negotiate, an America that cannot be trusted and a Europe you could never trust.”

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