Ahead of his meeting tomorrow with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it would be worthwhile for U.S. President Barack Obama to take a look at the transcript of an interview Information and Diaspora Minister Yuli Edelstein gave last week to news portal Arutz Sheva. The person assigned to explain government policy calmed his audience by arguing that Likud is "of higher moral fiber than in the past" and will know how to block any diplomatic move that will lead to two states for two peoples.
Edelstein explained that he does not oppose negotiations with the Palestinians "as long as it is clear that the move is not leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state." The minister was even willing to point to a "positive element" if the proximity talks lead to economic cooperation or help solve the water issue. How generous.
Obama needs to know that Edelstein is not alone. Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon does not miss a chance to say that no one in the forum of seven senior ministers believes in the current peace process. The other vice prime minister, Silvan Shalom, recently said that "the sole decision being considered" at the end of the freeze in settlement construction in September is "the resumption of construction and development of the area." Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin, a member of the political-security cabinet, has repeatedly highlighted the failed talks between former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as clear evidence that Israel has no one to talk to.
President Shimon Peres tried once again last week to convince Kadima leader Tzipi Livni to join Netanyahu and help him implement his vision of peace. But Netanyahu would rather break up Kadima than dissolve his right-wing coalition. Essentially, as the Americans say, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." If it's possible to waste time in indirect talks (the main subject that was raised in the exchanges ), why rock the boat? If Obama suffices with speeches to advance peace, why does a right-wing prime minister need to rush toward peace?
On both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, the proximity talks are considered the furthest possible effort from an agreement. In Ramallah they realize that the most generous offer the Netanyahu government will make will be significantly less than the basic principles accepted by the vast majority of the international community. There, too, negotiations - a tool for settling disputes - are being used as a system of conflict management. The Palestinians are trying to prove to the world that the Israelis prefer to keep Ariel without peace over peace without Ariel. They want it to be written in the report that sums up the failure of the American effort, that it was Netanyahu who rejected the other side's generous offers.
It's hard to believe that the proximity talks conducted by U.S. special envoy George Mitchell will succeed where the Camp David II summit of July 2000 under president Bill Clinton failed.
On the other hand, Obama's starting point is better than that of his predecessors in the White house. During the past decade, the Arab leaders have learned that time does not work in favor of the moderates.
The Palestinians have recognized that violence is more of a problem than a solution and have begun building an economic and social infrastructure for an independent state. Obama, meanwhile, has at his disposal the Arab League's historic peace initiative from March 2002. And in Israel, two graduates of the Sayeret Matkal special operations force who were bitter political rivals have become loyal allies.
When Obama meets Netanyahu, he should give him an invitation to Camp David, as he should with Abbas. In the worst-case scenario, instead of the proximity talks dying over a minor dispute over a freeze in settlement construction, a summit will reach a dead end because of serious issues like borders, Jerusalem or refugees. This way we will be able to test, once and for all, the myth of "there is no Palestinian partner" of Barak from Camp David II, which crushed the peace camp.
Thus we will discover whether Netanyahu prefers the path of Menachem Begin at Camp David I, or that of Edelstein at the next Likud conference.
Only in this way will we know whether the story of the Jewish and democratic state is coming to an end. And who knows, it may turn out that Peres is right and Bibi really has changed.
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