Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke again this week of shortly resuming Palestinian peace talks, an upbeat message echoed here by Israeli President Shimon Peres.
“The government of Benjamin Netanyahu is going to make peace,” Peres declared at a luncheon last week organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Peres’ optimism came following a one-hour meeting at the White House with President Barack Obama.
“I came back from Washington impressed and deeply reassured,” he said. “He’s beginning to be an exceedingly great president of the United States and at the same time a great friend of the State of Israel.”
Peres said Obama told him that his “top consideration is the security of Israel, and as long as I remain president this will remain my top priority.”
Netanyahu’s latest comments about Palestinian peace talks came Monday following a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh.
“We want, as soon as possible, to resume the peace talks with the Palestinians and I hope they will indeed resume in the coming weeks,” he said.
Netanyahu told reporters that he hoped to conclude peace treaties with Israel’s Palestinian neighbors just as Israel had signed a peace treaty with Egypt 30 years ago.
Although he did not mention the idea of a “two-state solution” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu said he looked forward to the day when both peoples lived together with “peace, security and prosperity.”
The Jerusalem Post reported that Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the minister of Industry, Trade and Labor who accompanied Netanyahu to Egypt, privately told officials he knew that Netanyahu realizes an agreement with the Palestinians can only be achieved through a two-state solution.
Netanyahu has said he wishes to concentrate initially on helping the Palestinians develop their economy, which he said could thrive with Israel’s help. The diplomatic negotiations would take place at the same time, along with discussions about the “Palestinian security apparatus that serve the security of both peoples.”
But Eyal Zisser, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, questioned whether the Palestinians would be anxious to resume talks with such an agenda.
“The Palestinians are not ready to engage just for the purpose of meeting,” he said. “Building economic ties? They are not interested in that. It’s impossible in the Middle East to move the economy without addressing the political issues.”
Stephen Cohen, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, agreed, saying such an approach “is not going to cut any ice at all.”
And he said that if Netanyahu suggests such an approach when he meets with Obama in the White House Monday, “Obama won’t accept it.”
If he does not say at the outset that the talks are aimed at establishing a Palestinian state next to Israel, “he’ll have to face alienating the United States, which is the worst thing to do,” Cohen said.
Mubarak said as much at Monday’s press conference, telling reporters that the talks must be “on the basis of a clear political horizon that deals with the final-solution issues and establishes an independent Palestinian state side by side with Israel in security and peace.”
Cohen said he believes “there is a chance” that Netanyahu recognizes what he must do and that he is prepared to do it.
“Bibi doesn’t want to stay in the narrow place in Israeli history that he has had so far,” Cohen told an IPF conference call, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “He wants to be a major figure. The thing everybody notices about Bibi is the extent to which he is susceptible to pressure and to make decisions under pressure.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he expects Netanyahu next week to say for the first time that he believes a two-state solution “is the ultimate goal and something we will have to live with.”
“The fact is that Netanyahu went to Egypt and was received well in Egypt,” he said. “He was engaging with the Egyptians and talking of the contents of the negotiations. There is a lot more continuity than discontinuity.”
But Zalman Shoval, a former foreign policy advisor for the Likud Party and Israeli ambassador to the United States, said he believes Netanyahu will skirt the issue by simply saying that “Israel does not wish to rule over the Palestinians.”
Netanyahu is also said to be ready to challenge the American approach of getting Israel to make concessions in Palestinian talks in return for creating a common American-Israeli front against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Without such an arrangement, it is feared that Arab states in the region will not be anxious to stand up to Iran.
“President Mubarak made it very clear to Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates that what Egypt is worried about is Iran and that no one should make a grand bargain with Iran,” Shoval said.
He said the U.S. should be putting pressure on Russia and China, which have been resisting worldwide sanctions on Iran to compel it to give up the quest for nuclear weapons.
“If America wants to create a common front against Iran, it has to do a bargain with China and Russia and not necessarily the Arab states,” Shoval added.
Meanwhile, despite making a diplomatic overture to Syria, the Obama administration last week renewed economic and diplomatic sanctions. A White House spokesman said the administration has “very serious concerns about Syrian behavior. … And as far as I’m aware, they haven’t taken any steps that – at this point – would lead us to change, to move, in another direction right now.”
Such a decision, Shoval said, shows that “American policymakers are waking up to the reality that things are not always as they look at first. … They may have the same awakening with respect to Iran, which is much more dangerous and an existential threat to Israel.”