Is Netanyahu ready to make peace? The test is yet to come

Hardliner would have to break with his own ideology to deliver a deal

Whatever else two days of high-octane schmoozing in Washington may have achieved, it has failed, at least as far as the outside world is concerned, to answer one of the great diplomatic riddles of the times.

Which is, what did Benjamin Netanyahu tell Barack Obama in July that convinced the US President that it was worth, first applying fierce pressure on the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to enter direct negotiations with Israel, with a view to achieving a peace deal within a year, and then launching the talks this week in Washington amid such fanfare. The White House has repeatedly made it clear to those who need to know that something was said – but not what it was.

Assuming that this is not mere spin, there is now a reasonable chance not only of solving the riddle but also of testing whether Netanyahu is as good as his word. That test is still to come. The Washington choreography was skilful; the Israeli Prime Minister used some positive language he has not used before; Abbas sought to shed his reservations, at least in public; the talks were given as good a send-off as could be expected.

But as far anyone can tell the meeting did not move the process forward, beyond agreeing to another in mid-September. Even the most urgent issue –that of the imminent end to the partial settlement freeze on 26 September, which Abbas says needs to be renewed if he is to stay in the talks – remains unresolved. It will require all the Americans' ingenuity to find a formula to ensure that the first working meeting on 14-15 September will not also be the last.

But what if that corner is turned, as it may be? The remaining obstacles, which explain why expectations are currently so low, are, of course, all too easy to rehearse; they include the fact that Hamas, excluded from the debate, has already given a glimpse of its potential capacity to destabilise the peace efforts; the unanswered questions about how Gaza, which it controls, could be brought within a putative Palestinian state; the deep opposition of many within the Netanyahu government, never mind outside it, to any division of the land, much less the minimum one the Palestinians could accept; the absence of a figure of Ariel Sharon's standing, in Israeli eyes, to force through the dismantling of settlements – some of them very hard line – that would almost certainly be needed if the deal was done.

That said, no one who was around when the Northern Ireland peace process began amid similarly dismal expectations can wholly rule out the prospect, however remote, that today's cynicism could yet be confounded. True, that process only worked when – unlike the Middle East process – it included the main armed faction; but despite the differences it's presumably his experience in Belfast that helps spur on George Mitchell, the US presidential envoy to the region, despite his 77 years.

So let's suspend disbelief for a moment, turn the argument round for once and approach the July riddle in a different way, by asking what rubicons Netanyahu would have to cross to bring a deal within sight. That isn't unreasonable; he represents massively the stronger of the parties, and the one with the territory to give up.

Moreover, a paradox of Abbas's weak position is that his room for accepting any less than 22 per cent of the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and for some recognition by Israel of responsibility for the displacement of the 1948 refugees, is all the lesser. He has already been castigated by much of the Arab press for selling out – somewhat unfairly since he has conceded nothing yet, beyond agreeing to talk. But this means that even if he agrees a deal that is every bit as good for the Palestinians as the one Arafat would have accepted, he could still find it a lot harder to sell.

So Netanyahu remains the most pivotal, as well as the most unreadable, of the players. His mastery of public relations in recent months has been vastly superior to that of the Palestinian leadership, especially in presenting himself as the willing negotiating partner. But that only deepens the puzzle; does all this represent a true yearning for a place in history as a peacemaker; or is it a mere trick to convince a suspicious international community?

A recently retired top Israeli official, with experience of previous negotiations going back to the early Nineties suggested this week that Netanyahu had "matured" since his first premiership. He was less sure that he had abandoned, deep down, his "life time ideology"; and while granting that he might have done, he was even more agnostic over whether the Prime Minister was prepared to forsake his political base, as Sharon did when he broke up Likud to bring the settlers out of Gaza (and Netanyahu, only five years ago, was his chief opponent on the hard right).

For all that would indeed be necessary. He would need, whether for reasons of legacy or to put Washington in his debt at a time when he needs their help in preventing a nuclear Iran, to break decisively with his own ideology – and that of many in his own family, not least his formidably right-wing father. He would need to walk the same path that his predecessor Ehud Olmert did, when in the dying days of his premiership he began to negotiate seriously with Abbas.

To secure the final status settlement he says is achievable within a year, Netanyahu would therefore have to break with his long-held public positions by agreeing to share Jerusalem and to part with some of the most cherished settlements, not all of them on remote hilltops. (To take a detailed example, there is a wide Israeli consensus that the big settlements, or settlement blocs, of Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim and Ariel would be part of Israel in any final deal. But there are unconfirmed suggestions that Washington's view is that to bridge the gap between the two sides Ariel would revert to the new Palestine).

And he could only do this by a major and dramatic reshaping of his coalition, in which not only the smaller, hard-right nationalist parties, but also some of his own Likud ministers would have to be jettisoned, in favour of a much more centrist-to-left government around Tzipi Livni's Kadima. The settlers would scream treachery, and so would the block of some 40 Knesset members already preparing for just such an eventuality. And a politician notoriously susceptible in the past to pressure would have to find the steel to face down his tormentors.

There may be some truth in the argument that peace can better be made from the right, without a Netanyahu in opposition to agitate against it, as he did with such vigour and demagogy against Rabin after Oslo. The question is whether, against all the expectations, Netanyahu Mark II has calculated all this, is politically and psychologically ready for it, and has convinced the US President that he is. We should know the answer to that conundrum within a year.

EU chief blames 'Jewish lobby'

The EU's trade chief apologised yesterday for blaming Jews and the "Jewish lobby" in Washington for blocking a peace deal in the Middle East. Karel De Gucht, 56, said he did not mean to stigmatise Jewish people and stressed in a statement that, "anti-Semitism has no place in today's world". A spokeswoman for the European Commission also dismissed the remarks as not representing EU policy. Mr De Gucht's comments came in a Thursday radio interview as the US formally convened the first direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in nearly two years.

The European Jewish Congress, an umbrella group, had demanded a retraction of his remarks in which he maintained that Israel frustrates US-led peace efforts and warned not to "underestimate the Jewish lobby on Capitol Hill".

"That is the best organised lobby that exists there," the former Belgian foreign minister said in the interview with the Dutch-speaking VRT radio network.

"Don't underestimate the opinion ... of the average Jew outside of Israel," he said. "There is, indeed, a belief, I can hardly describe it differently, among most Jews that they are right. So it is not easy to have a rational discussion with a moderate Jew about what is happening in the Middle East. It is a very emotional issue."

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Central London - £45,000-£55,000 + bonus

£45000 - £55000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: The focus of this is to deve...

Application Support - Enterprise Java, SQL, Oracle, SQL Server

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A well-established financial soft...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape