Credibility is very much at the heart of the US-Israel relationship under their new leaders, President Barack Obama and prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The US president is insisting on an immediate start on diplomacy for solving the Middle East conflict. Former Israeli prime ministers have often dealt with Washington's demands by ducking and weaving around them and spinning out commitments until a given presidential term runs its course.
After Ariel Sharon pulled out of Gaza and the northern tip of the West Bank, his deputy and successor, Ehud Olmert was wont to declare himself willing to give up almost everything for peace with the Palestinians and Syria. But in the end, as George W. Bush discovered, nothing came of it.
Therefore, the new inmate of the White House must decide if he believes Israel's new prime minister when he declares he is serious about going forward with the peace process on a regional basis with the help of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, or whether this is another catchy slogan for inaction.
Jerusalem, for its part, is uncertain about the credibility of President Obama's avowed intention to work towards a Palestinian state by late 2012, as he, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special Middle East envoy George Mitchell claim.
The problem here is that not a single knowledgeable Israeli politician or military officer believes this goal is attainable. The Netanyahu government therefore wonders if the US president's intentions are for real. Any Israeli will point out that the Palestinians have already created two autonomous entities as the infrastructure for two potential states that fiercely defy unification any time in the foreseeable future.
There is therefore no point in embarking on negotiations when no one knows who rules the Palestinian people or who is competent to represent them.
Mitchell: Never mind Palestinian divisions
George Mitchell, who talked to Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week in Jerusalem and Ramallah, urged Netanyahu to set this question aside because it is a sure-fire recipe for doing nothing, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports. Leave it to us – Washington, Cairo and Riyadh – said the American diplomat. If Israel and the Palestinians can start moving forward, that problem will work itself out too.
Mitchell left Israeli officials with the same old problem of whether or not to believe Washington can deliver on its assurances.
This mutual diffidence must have been behind the short aside appearing in an Israeli newspaper on Sunday, June 7, which quoted Mitchell as confiding to the prominent American-Jewish leader Mortimer Zuckerman: “The Israelis lied to us all these years. It's over.”
Both strongly denied this quote; Mitchell said it was “totally false. It is a complete fabrication.”
Still the incident left a sour aftertaste at a time of undeniable differences between Jerusalem and Washington.
Thursday, June 11, administration sources in Washington warned against expecting too much from Netanyahu's scheduled speech Sunday, June 14, to be delivered at a symbolic venue, the Begin-Sadat Hall of Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv Bar Ilan University.
The prime minister promises to unveil his government's policy on peace and security with reference to Israel's future negotiations with the Palestinians and Arab states. Washington sources do not expect too much linkage between his views and Obama's policy goals.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Jerusalem sources report that Netanyahu had still not finished drafting his speech or even its main points by the time this issue closed for publication. He is still in the middle of exhaustive consultations with Likud party colleagues and coalition partners, who represent a broad gamut of opinion on peace and security.
Who will Netanyahu be addressing?
It is not even clear who Netanyahu will be addressing – the people of Israel, whose right it is to know where their prime minister is leading them; President Obama, who called Netanyahu Tuesday, June 9 and was promised new and interesting ideas consistent with the president's Middle East policies; or moderate Arab rulers, who will be asked to back up peace diplomacy with the Palestinians.
With regard to Netanyahu's dogged refusal to affirm his support for a Palestinian state, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said quite openly Wednesday, June 10, that in a conversation between them, the Israeli prime minister had in fact accepted the two-state principle – one Israeli, one Arab.
Later Wednesday, Netanyahu faced the music from members of his Likud faction, many of whom oppose Palestinian statehood. Four days before his keynote speech, their chief spokesman, Benny Begin told the party faithful: “If the only solution is two states for two peoples, then there is no solution.”
President Obama's proposal is incomprehensible, he said. It means the establishment of one state, not two, because the two parts would constantly try to devour each other. He defined the proposal as “not a two state solution but a two stage (Palestinian) solution.”
Begin went on to maintain: “We failed not because we didn't make enough concessions… but because in the past 15 years, the theory of territory for peace had proved to be seriously flawed.” The territory Israel ceded brought terror not peace.
Netanyahu who was present at the meeting refused to be drawn on his planned policy speech, commenting only he would take the words he heard under consideration, but the reality was more complicated than they knew.
Netanyahu's plan: Work around Obama's settlement freeze fixation
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Jerusalem outline five key principles guiding Netanyahu's policy approach:
1. To avoid direct confrontation with President Obama.
Netanyahu's speech will therefore most likely confirm Israel's acceptance in one way or another of the road-map endorsed in 2003 by the Middle East Quart of the US, the EU, Russia and the United Nations. The staged, performance-related negotiating process defined in this document leads to a Palestinian state as its end product, provided the Palestinians meet their obligations along the way.
2. To avoid the settlement freeze demanded by President Obama at every opportunity as the key to progress in solving the Israel-Arab conflict.
A complete freeze would entail halting construction in major Israeli towns such as Jerusalem, Maaleh Adummim, Ariel, Efrat, and Modi'in Illit. The prime minister is considering certain 'creative' solutions that would circumvent Obama's demand without rejecting it too bluntly.
One such idea is a six-month construction halt during which the Palestinians would have to demonstrate their adherence to their obligations under the road map. If they failed, Israel would go back to building.
Another is for the immediate resumption of peace talks against an Israeli pledge to match progress towards attaining understandings with a slowdown of settlement construction.
3. Israel's relations with moderate Arab states, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and certain Gulf emirates, are placed front and center of the peace process.
The Israeli prime minister wants to see direct negotiations with the Palestinians accompanied by talks with Arab governments leading to full diplomatic and economic relations. He will propose that the two tracks be correlated. The more the second track advances, the more accommodating Israel will be on Palestinian issues.
Netanyahu finds this course perfectly consistent with President Obama' views on future Israel-Arab relations as outlined in his Cairo speech ten days ago.
George Mitchell asked him this week if his Arab channel includes Syria.
Netanyahu replied that he had no objection to Mitchell raising the possibility of renewing diplomatic talks when he met Syrian leaders in Damascus this week. But he did object to including them in Israel's multiple track with moderate Arab leaders because, he said, Syria would quickly sabotage it.
Netanyahu wants parallel Palestine, Arab peace tracks
4. Netanyahu stands by his view that Iran's nuclear activities are a menace that is shared by Israel, the United States and the Arabs.
He will reiterate this point in his speech while at the same time taking issue with the Obama administration's bid to interconnect the Iranian nuclear and the Israeli-Palestinian issues. On the other hand, the prime minister is more than willing to treat the challenge of Iran's drive for a nuclear weapon as part of a comprehensive accommodation with moderate Arab countries.
5. The Israeli prime minister counts on mobilizing pro-Israel Democratic members of Congress should differences with the Obama administration slide into outright acrimony.
He believes he can drum up enough sympathy there to soften White House opposition to Israel's policies.
He was encouraged in this belief by statements to the Financial Times by two prominent Democratic House representatives, both ardent Obama supporters, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY).
“The president has put forth his opening position,” Mr Wexler said in the interview. “I am confident the Israelis will put forth a credible plan on settlements and we need to give them some time and some space – not months, but some time and space – to develop that plan.
“The Israeli response on settlements is not going to happen in isolation from what the Arab world is willing to do on normalizing relations with Israel,” he added, pointing to Mr Obama’s call for Arab states to foster ties with Israel.
Nita Lowey, who chairs the powerful House of Representatives subcommittee responsible for US foreign spending, struck a similar note. “While compromise will be required on both sides, the Palestinians and Arab states must unequivocally denounce terrorism, recognise Israel, cease anti-Israel incitement at home and within the United Nations, and support viable Palestinian Authority institutions.”