As the new Israeli government begins formulating “new ideas” regarding Palestinian peace initiatives, Israel’s National Infrastructure Minister said it would first demand Palestinian recognition of Israel.
“Any future negotiations will not be with a Palestinian leadership that is unprepared to recognize the right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state,” the minister, Uzi Landau, told The Jewish Week in a phone interview, perhaps indicating that the best diplomatic defense is to go on offense.
Just last month, Mohammad Dahlan, a senior leader of the Fatah Party, which controls the West Bank, was quoted as saying on Palestinian television: “We demand of the Hamas movement not to recognize Israel because the Fatah movement does not recognize Israel even today.”
He reportedly explained that only the Palestinian Authority government — not Fatah — recognized Israel and only for the purpose of receiving financial aid from abroad.
Landau said that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to see a “change in the [Palestinian] educational system so that it won’t continue to exist as a production line for suicide bombers. They have to change the Palestinian education system so that it will start to speak of peace.”
In addition, Landau said, the Palestinians must create an “entity that can govern itself.”
“Until now you have seen an entity that is basically in a civil war,” he said, referring to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the West Bank headed by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority and head of the Fatah Party.
“He [Abbas] is still confronting Hamas extremists, and if there was a free election, this place [the West Bank] would fall into the hands of Hamas,” Landau added.
Israel’s reassessment of its foreign policy will take another month or two to formulate, according to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
“We intend to act decisively in the diplomatic field and devise a new, updated and comprehensive situation assessment,” he said Tuesday in remarks to his Israel Beiteinu party. “We’ll formulate the policy in accordance with our outlook and with what the voters wanted.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the issues Landau raised are the “traditional issues you hear from most Israeli officials — issues that were raised in 1996, the first time Netanyahu was prime minister.”
He said the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state is an issue that would be pressed because the Saudi peace initiative adopted by the Arab League and supported by President Barack Obama calls for full Arab recognition of Israel but makes no mention of it as a Jewish state.
“Israelis are prepared to argue that more than 50 states call themselves Islamic and are members of the Islamic Conference,” Steinberg said.
He pointed out that Obama in his speech this week in Turkey “spoke all about symbols and how Arabs have to stop blaming everything on Israel and that Israelis have to empathize with Arabs. He did not speak about territory or other concrete issues, which indicates that there is a willingness to enter into these kinds of discussions and that recognition will be an issue.”
Asked about Lieberman’s embrace of the Bush “road map” to peace that calls for a two-state solution, Steinberg said he believes Netanyahu was unaware of what he planned to say.
“Within the inner circle around Netanyahu is a working group on what to present to the Americans and [Middle East envoy George] Mitchell,” he said. “They are looking at a lot of options and Lieberman caught them by surprise. They said nothing because they do not yet have a counter position. All they have said is that they are doing a broad overview on policy regarding the Palestinians and that when they are ready they will present it. … They don’t want to renounce Lieberman and get into a public fight with him.”
Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state, said he believes “Iran will be the governing paradigm through which the government approaches the peace and security issues in the next year.
“Iran is the key,” he said regarding Israel’s foreign policy. “Until there is more clarity in Iran’s position and America’s on the [Iranian] nuclear issue, it is hard for me to see this government taking consequential steps on either the Palestinian or Syrian track.”
But Miller added that he believes the Netanyahu government is “capable of reaching a peace treaty with Syria. Whatever is done on the Palestinian issue, probably the more consequential [actions] will be in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations and in their dealings with Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.”
Miller pointed out that “the history of peacemaking in Israel is that hawks make the walk and not the doves,” noting that “[Menachem] Begin transformed into a peacemaker, [Yitzchak] Shamir went to Madrid [for peace talks], and [Ariel] Sharon disengaged from Gaza. The fact that Israel now has a rightwing government is not as germane as the fact that it might not be able to make consequential steps regarding Palestinian peacemaking right now.”
And the fact that a Palestinian peace deal is “hard to imagine now, may impel them to be quite serious about a Syrian-Israeli accord,” Miller said.
Most Mideast observers believe that there is little hope of an accord with the Palestinians until they can solve their own Hamas-Fatah dispute, which sometimes turns violent.
Ami Pedahzur, an associate professor in the department of government at the University of Texas in Austin, said that although the current Israeli government is right-leaning, the presence of the Labor Party in the coalition “is going to rescue” Netanyahu from adopting hard right positions.
“I am hopeful that Netanyahu is oriented to pleasing the U.S. administration and that he will be more flexible” than initially believed, he said. “If he had had the [rightist] National Unity Party in his coalition, his coalition would have been doomed.”
Pedahzur said he too believes the Syrian and not the Palestinian track holds the most promise.
“There is no Palestinian leader,” he said. “Abbas is weaker than ever and [Palestinian Prime Minister Salam] Fayed said he is resigning. I don’t think the Palestinian cabinet that sits in Ramallah can speak for all Palestinians. Netanyahu was never eager to move forward in the peace process, so the status quo is very convenient for him.”
Pedahzur added that the “only reason [Netanyahu] is not saying more definitive [about the Palestinian track] is not to upset Obama.”
But Lieberman has been less reluctant to bite his tongue, and on Tuesday evening he said bluntly that peace efforts with the Palestinians have reached a “dead end.”
That triggered an immediate response from the U.S. State Department, which issued a statement reaffirming Washington’s belief in a two-state solution without mentioning Lieberman’s comments.
Lieberman had endorsed the two-state solution last week, a fact that Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, said he found ironic because Lieberman had voted against it and many believed it was dead.
“I was taken by surprise that it has been resurrected,” he said. “But it offers the new government a way of shifting gears while sticking with an agreement” the U.S. supports.
“It makes it difficult to object to,” he added.