Can Obama Outwit Netanyahu?

By George S. Hishmeh – Washington, D.C.

In the wake of last week’s peace talks in Washington heralding the imminent start of face-to-face peace negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, will Benjamin Netanyahu now follow the footsteps of Anwar Sadat, Mikhail Gorbachev or Richard Nixon who reached out to their adversaries.
Will he travel to Ramallah and pledge peace with the Palestinians, like Anwar Sadat when the Egyptian leader addressed the Knesset in 1977, Mikhail Gorbachev in succumbing to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 or Richard Nixon in traveling to China in 1972 and agreeing to establish relations with the Communist regime of Mao Zedong.  Each of these headline-grabbing events ushered a new historic page in international relations.

It is too early, if not day-dreaming, to expect these earth-shaking gestures from Netanyahu, a man considered the master of evasion. In turn, the straight-talking Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose stance has been well known for decades, will be negotiating on behalf of the all-inclusive Palestine Liberation Organization which technically represents all Palestinians and not only the Palestinian National Authority, which is headquartered in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and until recently controlled the Gaza Strip, now run by the militant Hamas. To his credit he has pledged to submit any peace agreement with Israel to a public referendum, doubtless a mind-wrenching exercise since Palestinians are scattered everywhere in the Arab world and beyond.

The upcoming two-day meeting in mid-September of Netanyahu and Abbas in Egypt’s resort town, Sharm al-Sheikh, and chaperoned by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Middle East special envoy George Mitchell, may be generously described as a positive step. But in reality the issue hanging over all their heads is whether the Israeli prime minister and his ultra-right-wing cabinet will maintain the freeze, due to expire on September 26,  on settlement building – – an honest and full freeze. Otherwise, the talks will be scuttled and, as Clinton underlined,  this "opportunity to end this conflict" will vanish.
Cognizant of how everything is hanging in the balance, some Israelis are floating some shoddy ideas about how they can finesse this shattering issue. One suggestion is that Defense Minister Ehud Barak can stop issuing building permits in the occupied territories, thus curtailing any Israeli expansion by the settlers who nowadays number some 500,000. Barak, himself, has publicly acknowledged, though in vague terms, that the Palestinians can retain their territory in occupied East Jerusalem.

But most Israelis are overlooking how the rest of the world sees their usurpation of Arab land. One contrarian view, now gaining increasing support, is voiced by Aluf Benn, editor-at-large of Haaretz, a liberal Israeli paper. He writes in The Washington Post, that Netanyahu’s Israel “is ever more isolated from an international community that increasingly rejects Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, its settlements and its excessive use of force.” Moreover, he continued, the prime minister “sees Israel’s sheer existence, not its controversial policies, as the matter at stake.”
To date, Netanyahu has managed to remain vague about his negotiating objectives and, more importantly, does not want any publicity about the progress of the talks until the final agreement. He further wants his negotiating team to be composed of trusted aides for fear that any public knowledge of any concessions he may offer will torpedo his coalition government. This is reminiscent of Barak’s stance during the Camp David talks when all offers and counteroffers were abolished once the meeting ended without any endorsement of the draft accord, a consequence that backfired on all the participants.
This time around, a well-argued view for a one-state solution has been published in a leading American newspaper, The Washington Post, a position speedily gaining ground even among some Israelis. George Bisharat, professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, wrote that “a de facto one-state reality has emerged, with Israel effectively ruling virtually all of the former Palestine.” But for this possibility to succeed, he argued, the two parties need “to formalize their de facto one-state reality … on principles of equal rights rather than ethnic privilege” as well as “a secular, bilingual government elected on the basis of one person, one vote as well as strong constitutional guarantees of equality and protection of minorities, bolstered by international guarantees.”
Whether all this will materialize in one-year may ultimately depend on the seriousness of Barack Obama’s commitment to achieving a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, especially that there is extensive doubt nowadays about his willingness to resist pro-Israeli pressure during a mid-term election. 
Here’s what, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post pointed out in a column during Netanyahu’s reconciliation session with Obama last June: “A blue-and-white Israel flag hung from Blair House, (the official guest house). Across Pennsylvania Avenue, the Stars and Stripes was in its usual place atop the White House. But to capture the real significance of Prime Minister Benjamin’s Netanyahu’s visit with President Obama, White House officials might have instead flown the white flag of surrender.”

Only time will tell whether Obama can call Netanyahu’s bluff.

– George Hishmeh contributed this article to Contact him at:

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