Analysis: Netanyahu bids to change ‘diskette’

By David Horovitz April 28, 2009

PM’s message wins over Israeli public, just about, but Obama is going to be a tougher sell

The theme is clear in the extensive interview we carry in our Independence Day supplement today with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman: Successive governments of Left and Right, from Yitzhak Rabin’s in the early 1990s through to Ehud Olmert’s, have made ‘every effort’ yet failed to achieve a permanent accord with the Palestinians.

Now, the new government is completing a foreign policy overhaul, to be formally unveiled when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets with US President Barack Obama at the White House on May 18. And that overhauled policy will seek to advance what it believes are more ‘realistic’ strategies.

Lieberman derides the ‘slogans’ he keeps hearing from ostensibly well-meaning international would-be mediators, the superficial formulas for peacemaking.

What Lieberman is publicly advocating, and what Netanyahu will set out to achieve from May 18 onward, is a changing of the international ‘diskette’: This, first, necessitates an acknowledgement that those successive negotiating efforts foundered on the rock of Palestinian intransigence and weakness. And second, it requires a shifted focus, to a more modest, gradual program for creating a climate in which reconciliation might truly start to flourish.

Netanyahu’s stated desire to concentrate on ‘economic’ peacemaking with the Palestinians has been much derided, but that is plainly the message he will be taking to the White House. Gradually, he will argue, economic projects large and small can revive the West Bank economy.

Israel will do its bit by easing the non-security- related restrictions that have held up innumerable projects, many of them advanced by Quartet envoy Tony Blair. And it will urge not just the Palestinians, but the wider Arab world, to rally to the economic cause, pouring in investments to slowly remake the West Bank reality, and in so doing encourage the sense of an improving day-to-day life that should marginalize the hopelessness on which extremism preys.

In remarks on Capitol Hill last Thursday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned the new Israeli government that if it didn’t engage seriously with the Palestinians, it risked alienating the relatively moderate Arab states whose support is needed in the concerted effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear program.

The new government would like to turn that equation on its head. In comments that mesh thoroughly with the thinking in the Prime Minister’s Office, Lieberman stressed in his Jerusalem Post interview that Israel fully ‘intends to take the initiative’ as regards the Palestinians. Indeed, the Netanyahu government wants to engage with the Palestinians and with the rest of the region, to build alliances that advance common interests – and, first and foremost, to build a partnership to face down the common threat posed by Iran.

But as Clinton’s remarks indicated, winning support in the US and beyond for this reoriented approach will be difficult.

The new government might reasonably ask why it is being required to formally agree to a state for the Palestinian people when the Palestinian leadership adamantly rejects the designation of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. It might insist that full Palestinian statehood – a state, that is, with the right to build an army, import arms, forge alliances with the likes of Iran – would constitute an unacceptable threat to Israel.

But when – rather than if – such attitudes are met with Palestinian intransigence, it will be predominantly Israel, and not the Palestinians, that is castigated for the resulting diplomatic deadlock. And it will be Israel that is pressured to shift its stance.

Lieberman, again in harmony with Netanyahu, professes himself shocked by the territorial concessions the Olmert government was prepared to make. But the very fact that they were offered makes Netanyahu’s prospects of driving a harder, better bargain all the more improbable.

As Israel marks the 61st anniversary of its independence in the darkening shadow of Iran’s nuclear weapons quest, however, that threat from Teheran constitutes the key factor that will determine the success, or otherwise, of the new government’s approach. Indeed, it will be central to determining the well-being of the revived Jewish nation in the months and years ahead.

Netanyahu’s government is not conditioning the renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians – or, however improbably, with the Syrians, for that matter – on the thwarting of Iran. It is not saying, ‘First stop Iran, and then we’ll talk peace.’

But it is saying, sensibly, that there is no prospect of substantive progress with the Palestinians, or a wider improvement in regional relations, unless Iran’s nuclear drive is halted. Iran, emboldened, threatens Israel directly, via Hizbullah to the North and via Hamas to the South. But if Iran is cowed, moderate Palestinians and more moderate forces throughout our region would be liberated.

Netanyahu will tell Obama next month that, in an improved climate, with the Iranian threat defused and Palestinian readiness for reconciliation encouraged by an improved economy, he’s prepared for far-reaching concessions, though not as dramatic as previous governments have entertained. He’ll stress that Israel has no desire to govern the Palestinians, and make plain that his reservations about Palestinian statehood are practical, not ideological.

He’ll also doubtless indicate to Obama his conviction that diplomacy isn’t going to work with Teheran – that stringent economic sanctions, and the threat of worse, hold the key.

His overall message won over the Israeli public, just about. Obama is going to be a much tougher sell.

© The Jerusalem Post