Washington hopes the new, expanded coalition will enable Israel to take steps to advance peace talks with the Palestinians, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a phone call to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.
Over the past few years, Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed that he couldn't make certain gestures toward the Palestinians for fear that it would topple his government, which relied on smaller parties to his right.
The Prime Minister's Office published a laconic press statement about the conversation, which said merely that Clinton had congratulated Netanyahu on setting up the unity government. But sources in the U.S. State Department said the conversation went beyond polite congratulations.
According to a senior State Department official, Clinton told Netanyahu that she had been briefed on the main points of his coalition agreement with Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz, and she welcomed the clause in which they pledged that the government would "advance a responsible peace process." She said the United States is ready to support both sides in an effort to achieve a two-state solution.
Another senior American official said Clinton told Netanyahu that she is interested in hearing what he intends to do about the peace process now that Kadima has joined his government. In particular, she wanted to know when Netanyahu intends to reply to a letter from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The exchange of letters, she added, must lead to a resumption of continuous talks between Israeli and Palestinian representatives.
Even if such talks do not produce a breakthrough, the Americans hope to create a dynamic that would prevent any escalation in violence in the West Bank before the U.S. elections in November. If President Barack Obama is reelected, he then hopes to resume intensive involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian issue with the goal of producing a breakthrough between the parties.
Clinton used diplomatic niceties throughout the conversation. But even though it was never said explicitly, her message was clear: Netanyahu has no more excuses. The U.S. administration believes that even if the chances of a breakthrough are low, Netanyahu's broad coalition at least enables him to take a series of steps aimed at strengthening the Palestinian Authority.
Ever since taking office, Netanyahu has told Clinton and Obama that the composition of his coalition prevented him from moving forward in negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu explained that if he laid out clear positions on where the final borders should lie, or offered other significant concessions to Abbas, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman was likely to quit the coalition, leaving Netanyahu without a parliamentary majority.
Moreover, he said, he would face fierce opposition from within his own Likud party. Now, however, Kadima's 28 MKs give him a safety net against both Lieberman and the Likud's right flank.
Netanyahu and his advisors finished drafting his letter to Abbas this week. The process was delayed somewhat by the prime minister's father's death last week and the subsequent seven-day mourning period, as well as by the fact that the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, was recently hospitalized following a heart attack.
An Israeli source said that Netanyahu's envoy, attorney Isaac Molho, would meet with Abbas in Ramallah next week to deliver the letter. But the document contains no ground-breaking new Israeli proposals: It merely repeats Netanyahu's standard mantra that Israel is interested in resuming negotiations with the Palestinians without preconditions.