Analysis |

Netanyahu's Conduct in Renewed Peace Talks: One Step Forward, Three Steps Back

If the prime minister wants the Americans, Palestinians and most of all the Israeli public to take him seriously, he must leave his old tactics behind.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Not much has changed in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process since the American representative Martin Indyk dealt with the issue as a senior official in the Clinton administration in the 1990s. The issues under discussion are identical, the gaps remain as wide as they were and even most of the participants on the Israeli and Palestinian sides have remained on the playing field. But as opposed to those years, in 2013 there is Twitter.

On Friday, a short time before he boarded the plane for his first trip to Israel since he was appointed to his new role, Indyk tweeted from his account: "Departing Newark for Israel on first trip of our peace mission, the New Jersey customs officer wished me "b'hatzlaha" (mabruk/good luck)!"

Not much time has passed between the time Indyk landed in Tel Aviv and his own discovery that not much had changed. The creaking wagon still cannot climb the steep hill. Even before the meeting in Jerusalem on Wednesday, the blame game has started and the two sides are already exchanging verbal blows, sending letters and threatening a crisis.

Nonetheless, in meetings Indyk held Sunday and Saturday with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and with President Shimon Peres, Indyk tried to display optimism. But Indyk's truly important meeting will be with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two were meant to meet Monday, but the pain Netanyahu is suffering from after his operation will most likely push off the meeting until later in the week.

Indyk needs this meeting with Netanyahu to clear the table of all the past tension between them, and to turn a new page. But more important, Indyk needs to try and understand where Netanyahu is - to what extent does he truly want to make progress, or whether everything is only tactical maneuvers to lessen international pressure. In other words: Does Netanyahu really want to cross the Rubicon?

A senior Israeli official close to the prime minister said he thinks Netanyahu still has not yet crossed the river. On the one hand, he has stepped into the water and started marching toward the other bank. But on the other hand, he is looking back every few seconds, and for every step forward, he is allowing the current to push him back three steps.

For example, this is how Netanyahu reached the understandings with the Americans on the construction of only 1,200 new housing units in the settlement blocs and Jerusalem during the negotiations, and then suddenly various other plans for hundreds of additional housings units in the isolated settlements were pushed forward. Netanyahu bravely passed a decision in the cabinet to release 104 Palestinian prisoners, and then was frightened by the criticism and announced that in opposition to what was agreed, he would demand that some of the prisoners be deported to Gaza or overseas.

But the most ridiculous thing was the letter his bureau sent to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over the weekend, when Netanyahu was still suffering from the horrible pains that forced him to have his urgent hernia surgery. In the letter to Kerry, Netanyahu played his regular trump card of Palestinian incitement. In order to claim the Palestinians do not want peace, Netanyahu went so far as to quote the words of the song sung at the soccer game between Barcelona and the Palestinian team. If Netanyahu would occasionally visit Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem he would discover that Beitar Jerusalem fans prefer yelling "Death to Arabs" over "A song for Peace."

Officials who have spoken to Netanyahu say his behavior, his hesitation and zigzagging result from his lack of trust in Abbas. Netanyahu, say the officials, is willing to cross the river but wants to know if Abbas will do the same. He is worried that while he is jumping into the turbulent waters filled mostly with political whirlpools, Abbas will remain on the bank and let him drown alone.

If Netanyahu wants the Americans, Palestinians and most of all the Israeli public to take him seriously, he must leave his old tactics behind. Abandon the criticism, the spin, worn-out PR tricks and blame games - and enter the peace talks without looking back.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with PM Benjamin Netanyahu in his office, April 8, 2013.Credit: Matty Stern / U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

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