Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a diplomatic gain yesterday: The Arab League authorized Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to hold direct talks with Israel. Further efforts will be needed to reach an agreement on the framework of the negotiations, as well as their goals and conditions, but Netanyahu's repeated call for direct talks, which has been met with a persistent Palestinian refusal, is close to bearing fruit.
The turning point was Netanyahu's July 6 visit to the White House, where U.S. President Barack Obama announced his support for direct negotiations. Obama's declaration put an end to the proximity talks, which had not produced results, and led to a campaign to pressure Abbas to end his opposition to dialogue with the Israeli prime minister. Netanyahu has since visited Cairo and Amman, and the Arab League's decision yesterday suggests that Egypt's and Jordan's leaders decided to give the process a chance.
In politics, Netanyahu adheres to the principle "if they give, they'll get," and this gives rise to the question - what has he given Obama in return for direct talks? The details of the talks at the White House have not been leaked, but it appears Netanyahu is willing to extend the freeze on settlement construction, perhaps only outside the large settlement blocs, and transfer more territory in the West Bank to Palestinian civilian responsibility. The start of the talks will give Netanyahu cause to continue the freeze, against growing pressure from the Yesha Council of settlers and its supporters who want to expand settlement construction throughout the West Bank.
Netanyahu celebrated his victory over Abbas with a little shot at his bitter political rival, Haim Ramon, who, even when not in the government or Knesset, annoys the prime minister. Ayala Hasson reported on Israel Radio that three weeks ago Ramon met with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and tried to convince him not to resume direct talks. President Shimon Peres' name was mentioned, as if Ramon had been sent on the mission, something Ramon denies.
There were immediate, and expected, reactions from the right, which blamed Ramon and the head of his Kadima party, opposition leader Tzipi Livni, of assisting the enemy - nothing less. Netanyahu hinted early this week that the opposition was trying to undermine the negotiations, and now the story broke.
Netanyahu is not original; he is rehashing an old trick of Ariel Sharon. In early 2004 Sharon told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee about secret meetings. On one side was Peres, then the head of the Labor Party, the opposition and others in the "peace industry." On the other side was Ahmed Qureia, a leading figure in the Palestinian Authority.
When asked why there was no movement in the peace process, Sharon blamed the opposition. "Don't they know the Arabs talk?" Sharon told his aides, suggesting that intelligence had information about the meetings with the Israeli opposition.
Ramon reportedly told Erekat that there is no point in direct talks because "Bibi will not agree to anything." So who said there is no consistency in the peace process?
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