Netanyahu's three-step solution
The US expects Israel to participate fully with its Middle East gameplan – but Bibi's counter-offensive is already taking shape
o guardian.co.uk, Thursday 7 May 2009
Israel is under siege. More precisely, Binyamin Netanyahu's government faces excruciating pressure on all sides as showdown talks loom with Barack Obama in Washington on 18 May. Circling the wagons will not work this time. Israel's prime minister needs a breakout plan – and the outlines of his coming counter-offensive are taking shape.
The intensifying push to finally resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and not just the Palestinian issue, stems partly from the dangerously unfinished business of January's shocking Gaza carnage. More broadly, it is driven by the hopes of a new administration in Washington and the spectre of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Now Netanyahu is receiving much the same free advice from all directions. Drop your opposition to a two-state solution with Palestine and you will unlock a wider Middle East peace, said Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, this week, backed by EU policy chief Javier Solana. Accept you must relinquish the Golan Heights and anything is possible, said in-from-the-cold Bashar Assad, Syria's president, backed by Egypt and the Saudis.
Palestinian officials in Ramallah say they expect the US to try to impose a revamped peace plan on all parties. Quartet envoy Tony Blair says much the same. The "new framework" will be finalised after Obama meets Netanyahu, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Palestine's Mahmoud Abbas this month. It will be regional in scope, embracing Syria and Lebanon but not Iran, which the US will handle separately.
In case Netanyahu can't read the signs, the Americans are spelling it out. "Israel has to work for a two-state solution – you're not going to like me saying this – but not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts, and allow Palestinians freedom of movement ... and access to economic opportunity," US vice-president Joe Biden told Aipac lobbyists in Washington this week.
The emerging American gameplan, expected to be endorsed by the EU, the UN and "moderate" Arab states, starts with a fully observed ceasefire in Gaza followed by a lifting of the economic blockade and first-stage, confidence-building measures such as prisoner exchanges. Also in the works are a big increase in funding for the Palestinian Authority, its security forces and Gaza reconstruction; and collective efforts to end the Fatah-Hamas feud and encourage a unity government that Netanyahu cannot refuse to talk to.
A Camp David-style, face-to-face talks process now seems Obama's firm aim and it's clear he will expect, not request, Netanyahu to participate fully. One difference this time, under the professor turned president, is that the process will be highly disciplined, with a timeframe, set objectives, and rules. Rule one: setting objectionable, unilateral preconditions will not be allowed.
In danger of being outflanked, Netanyahu is working up a three-pronged counter-strategy. His cribsheet reads something like this.
One: raise the spectre of Iran, then raise it again, and again. "Something significant is happening today in the Middle East," Netanyahu told the Aipac conference by video-link. "For the first time in my lifetime, I believe for the first time in a century, Arabs and Jews see a common danger." US nerves are rattling over Tehran, too, despite recent overtures. Netanyahu will push for a time limit on talking and when, as he expects, it comes to nothing, will insist on robust measures. Memo to Obama: compared to Iran, Palestine is secondary.
Two: talk nice, be reasonable and confound the "hawk" stereotype. "We are prepared to resume peace negotiations without any delay and without any preconditions," Netanyahu said this week. Israel wanted to help strengthen the PA's security apparatus and boost Palestinian economic development. "I want to see Palestinian youngsters knowing they have a future ... a future that means prosperity for all." Keeping to the script, he created a ministerial panel to encourage West Bank economic projects and partially ended a block on fund transfers to Gaza.
Three: uphold national security and integrity. In Netanyahu's view, talk of implementing a two-state solution is premature while unwithdrawn threats remain. "For a final peace settlement to be achieved, the Palestinians must recognise Israel as the Jewish state ... as the nation-state of the Jewish people." This concept, repeatedly rejected by Abbas, was both Israel's foundation and its salvation, he said.
In this way Netanyahu means to break the siege, deflect the pressure, and maintain the US alliance while transforming Obama's forward charge into slow, incremental advances on terms acceptable to Israel. Working with Obama and Abbas, he said, "we can defy the sceptics, we can surprise the world".
What kind of a surprise he didn't say.