The political change that began to take shape following last year's elections has yet to produce substantive policy change. In line with his predecessors, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adopted the two-state formula as a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, but has not filled that declaration with any real substance. The security calm, the emergence from the recession, and political stability let Netanyahu avoid making any real decisions.
Also, the political change in the United States, with the entry of President Barack Obama into the White House, has had only peripheral influence on the Middle East. Obama's Cairo speech raised hopes for new relations between America and the Arab and Muslim world, and an expectation that the new president would take advantage of his status to promote peace and end the Israeli occupation of the territories. The president appointed a special envoy, George Mitchell, who demanded that Israel freeze settlement construction, and after great effort forced Netanyahu into a partial freeze. But Obama failed in his attempt to resume negotiations between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The year 2010 must be Netanyahu's proving time. The prime minister must justify his return to the helm, which he backed by expressing his deep concern for Israel's future. He must allow Obama, who is committed to Middle East peace, to help him. Any further delay in the peace process will only bolster those who oppose compromise.
The prime minister has three decisions on his agenda:
Furthering peace. Netanyahu says he wants to and can further a peace settlement with the Palestinians. He must do so now - leading Israel out of the West Bank (through a territory exchange) and establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Such an arrangement may run contrary to the ideologies Netanyahu has held to date, but the prime minister has already shown that he is capable of changing his stance. His popularity since returning to power and his strength in Israeli politics allow him freedom of action. Now it is his turn to lead.
Dealing with Iran. The most important incident in 2009 was Iran's presidential election. It stirred unprecedented protests by the opposition and led the Islamist regime into the most serious crisis of its 30-year rule. The internal confrontation has not yet stalled Iran's nuclear program, and Obama's efforts to engage in dialogue with Tehran have led to naught, but the emerging change in Iran gives hope that tensions in the region may be contained; Israel must not interfere. Netanyahu is committed to great caution and close cooperation with Obama, and he must avoid military adventurism that will only result in a pointless war between Israel and Iran.
Return Gilad Shalit. The year has ended without a prisoner exchange with Hamas because of Netanyahu's hesitation. The delay only extends the tragedy of the imprisoned soldier. The prime minister should bring the matter to an end, in accordance with the framework Ehud Olmert established, and free himself up for the more serious tasks awaiting him.
Netanyahu's time is limited. If he does not take action this year, he will miss the opportunity he has been given to further peace with the Palestinians.
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