Donald Macintyre: Now is the moment for Israel to talk

International Studies

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The Independent Online

Let's roll the clock back to last Friday night/Saturday morning when six security guards were trapped inside Israel's Cairo embassy, separated by only one steel door from enraged Egyptian demonstrators who had stormed the building. It was an ugly moment, and by all accounts Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, conducted himself during the crisis with considerable cool. Probably the most crucial step he took was to phone Barack Obama, who in the words of the former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, showed "leadership of historic dimensions" by hitting the phones to Cairo, paving the way for the Israelis' rescue.

The incident was a reminder that the anxieties Israel has about security on its southern flank after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak are real. But it was also a reminder of how much Israel still owes to Washington and its President. Particularly as the Americans embark on their final 48-hour effort to limit what Israel has persuaded them will be the damage caused by the Palestinian application to the UN for statehood. What Washington is now desperately trying for is a formula, agreed by the "Quartet" (the US, the EU, the UN and Russia) which will persuade the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to give negotiations with Netanyahu another try. And to do that with any vestige of credibility they would need something from the Israeli Prime Minister.

What Abbas wearily said of the Quartet's efforts in Ramallah last week (in answer to a question from The Independent, as it happens), "To be frank with you, they came too late", it was understandable. He had at least wanted some clear terms of reference, signed up to by the Americans, given the yawning gap between what Netanyahu had previously showed any sign of offering, and the minimum the Palestinians could accept.

It looked from the first of two speeches Obama made back in May, stressing that a Palestinian state should be based on 1967 borders, that this would happen. But when it came to the July Quartet meeting, the US proposal had been so modified to accommodate Israeli demands, that not only Russia, but to her credit, the EU's representative, Baronness Ashton, quickly realised that it wouldn't fly and rejected it. This tedious diplomatic saga is only worth rehearsing to emphasise that Abbas would need some evidence that talks might actually get somewhere, if he were not to become a regional laughing stock by resuming them. He knows very well that only negotiations can produce lasting peace. But he also knows Netanyahu is under no pressure from his coalition to facilitate talks which neither side believes will succeed.

Yet in a saner world this would actually just be the time for Netanyahu to remove the obstacles to credible negotiations, including the stipulation that Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state – one not required by previous Israeli governments. For improbable as they are, serious negotiations with the Palestinians are probably the one development that would rescue what the opposition leader Tzipi Livni yesterday called "the most right- wing government in Israel's history" from what she went on to describe as "the worst possible diplomatic crisis".

Even allowing for a politician's hyperbole, she has a point. It would blunt the edge of the mounting anger from Ankara to Cairo. And begin to repay the debt Netanyahu owes to Obama in return for the US risking still further his badly faltering relations with the Arab world by promising to use Washington's UN veto yet again.

The best bet remains that the Palestinians will instead still seek non-member state status at the UN General Assembly. If so, the Europeans should surely do what Washington can't and line up behind what a European Council of Foreign Relations paper eloquently calls "an alarm call over a peace process that is dying on its feet." To do any less would be to turn their back on the two years of successful Palestinian state-building they invested so much capital – political and financial– to bring about.

Turkey's secularism may worry Hamas

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, though welcoming Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Cairo yesterday, sounded a polite warning to the Turkish Prime Minister, saying it did not think "he and his country alone" should be "leading the region or drawing up its future."

Part of the problem between Turkey and Israel has been the latter's fears of Erdogan's relatively cordial relations with Hamas, historically an offshoot of the Brotherhood – a fear that has been fuelled by his threat to visit Gaza. But could the Brotherhood's reservations be because Erdogan, despite his Islamist credentials, emphasised that the new Egypt should be secular? Or because of his enthusiastic backing for the Palestinian Authority's bid for UN membership, something to which Hamas's reaction in Gaza has ranged from very lukewarm to downright hostile?

Could Blair fill Mitchell's shoes?

The man leading the bid to restart peace negotiations is Tony Blair, mandated by the US for the first time to work on the politics, rather than economics and Palestinian state-building issues. Could the US possibly be thinking of giving Blair a more permanent Middle East envoy role, of the kind it gave George Mitchell? Like Mitchell, Blair is a politician, not a career diplomat, albeit not an American one.