Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged pleased from the three-way summit in New York this week. In an interview with Haaretz correspondent Natasha Mozgovaya, Netanyahu boasted of his diplomatic achievements: "[Obama] said something we had been seeking for six months, that we have to meet and begin the diplomatic process without preconditions."
Netanyahu was encouraged by the fact that the U.S. president gave in on the demand for a total freeze on settlements and by the agreement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to come to the summit despite the conditions he had set for renewal of talks with Israel not being met.
In the interview, Netanyahu quoted Obama's remarks about Israel as a Jewish state and Obama's praise for the removal of roadblocks in the West Bank, describing them as a manifestation of support for the government's policies. At the same time, Netanyahu does not take seriously Obama's statements that the continuation of settlements is not legitimate and that the establishment of a Palestinian state will end the occupation that began in 1967. Netanyahu described these statements as a recycling of old American formulas, "which previous governments in Israel adopted."
Netanyahu ignored Obama's public scolding of both Israelis and Palestinians, and the warning that the American president's patience would run out if the diplomatic freeze persisted.
It is only natural for Netanyahu to accentuate the points of agreement with Obama and attempt to soften their disagreements. That is the way of politicians, especially prime ministers in Israel, who depend on American support.
But Netanyahu's joy of victory is worrisome. The prime minister went to the summit and is returning today to Israel without having renewed negotiations with the Palestinians. His meeting with Obama and Abbas did not produce agreements or practical results that give hope for a solution to the conflict. Rather, it only sharpened the differences and increased the lack of faith between the peoples.
Netanyahu is having trouble persuading others that his declared support for a two-state solution was anything more than lip service, intended to get rid of American pressure; that his call for negotiations "without preconditions" is anything other than an attempt to stall for time with useless talks.
Netanyahu sees the renewal of talks as a safety valve for international pressure on Israel, and is using it as a reason for his demand that Western leaders bury the Goldstone Commission report on Operation Cast Lead. At the same time, he has entrenched himself behind hawkish positions on the essential issues and insists that the development of the settlements continue.
Netanyahu talks about peace, but identifies with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's position that an arrangement based on a two-state solution is impossible.
By presenting Obama as a weak president, who folded in the face of Israel's refusal to freeze settlements, and Abbas as refusing peace, Netanyahu is signaling to his political base in Likud and the right-wing parties. However, he risks missing the opportunity presented by Obama's election for a renewal of the peace process and a solution to the Israel-Arab conflict.
In presenting the expansion of the settlements as an achievement, Netanyahu is working against Israel's interests in ending the occupation and dividing the land. His momentary "victory" might be the country's loss.
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