Washington, September 1, 2010.
U.S. President Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the White House in Washington, September 1, 2010. Photo by Reuters
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About three months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he was ending talks with the Palestinian Authority in response to the reconciliation agreement PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party signed with Hamas. Even though the agreement signed in Gaza was first and foremost an internal Palestinian affair, and even though it might well have bolstered the chances for peace, Netanyahu preferred to portray it as proof that Abbas wasn’t a fit partner for negotiations.

It seems unlikely that, in hindsight, Netanyahu would make that mistake again. Instead of bolstering Abbas and using the reconciliation government to bring Hamas leaders under his diplomatic roof, Israel preferred to wrinkle its nose, end the U.S. secretary of state’s peace initiative and weaken Abbas.

But Operation Protective Edge in Gaza and the stormy period that preceded it seem to have produced ample evidence of Abbas’ positive leadership and his importance to the region. His statement to the Arab League foreign ministers condemning the kidnapping of three Israeli teens, his attempts to mediate between Israel and Hamas to arrange a cease-fire and the relative quiet he managed to preserve in the West Bank during this explosive time all prove that Abbas is a partner.

Netanyahu currently enjoys broad public support; a Haaretz-Dialog poll published yesterday found that 77 percent of the public approves of his performance during Operation Protective Edge. But the more significant revolution was in the Israeli public’s attitude toward Abbas: In contrast to the hostility with which Israelis viewed him two months ago, 53 percent of the post-operation respondents said they would like Israel to work to bolster his status and to resume negotiations with the PA (37 percent disagreed.)

Netanyahu must now make a courageous decision. Despite his right-wing coalition – which includes peace rejectionists like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett – the prime minister must seize the moment to return to the negotiating table. If anything has been proven over the last month, it’s that Israel’s future is more important than coalition considerations and political survival. Now is the time to bolster Abbas, to give his leadership due weight - so that he will have the power to influence Hamas as well - and, above all, to see him as someone with whom Israel can negotiate a diplomatic agreement.

About a year ago, when talks with the Palestinians were resumed, Netanyahu explained that he had two goals: “preventing the creation of a binational state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, which threatens the future of the Jewish state,” and preventing the establishment of “another terrorist state under Iran’s aegis.” Both these goals are still valid.