Netanyahu's Test

New talks doomed if understandings between the PA and the previous government are ignored.

Following an excessively long winter hibernation, the Israeli-Palestinian track is beginning to show signs of life. U.S. mediator George Mitchell is expected to return to the region in the hope of laying the groundwork for the upcoming visit by Vice President Joe Biden, who will be in Jerusalem and Ramallah to announce the start of indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians. This was preceded by a decision by Arab League foreign ministers to support indirect peace talks for a period of no more than four months, at the end of which the League will decide whether to support a renewal of direct talks.

Arab foreign ministers characterized this stage as a last-ditch effort to promote the peace process as a form of dialogue with Israel. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said that if the proximity talks reach a dead end, the Arab states will seek an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss alternate ways of ending the occupation.

The Arab League's positive contribution to peace efforts is evidenced by the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, who called on Arab leaders to reconsider their position. Hamas, like Israel's radical right, fears "the danger" that indirect talks will lead to a renewal of direct peace negotiations and, by extension, a fair and equitable partition of this land that has been torn by war between the two nations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the decision by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with support from the Arab League, to say yes to the American initiative. As Netanyahu noted, the proximity talks are a step back from the mechanism of direct, open negotiations that have characterized relations between the two sides since the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993. Netanyahu said he hoped this stage would be limited to a few months and that the two sides would eventually engage in direct talks.

The success of the indirect talks is contingent on restoring trust between the two sides and presenting realistic positions on the conflict's core issues. The Palestinian Authority must keep on restraining extremist elements, who will try to sabotage a diplomatic process. The Israeli government must abide by its commitment in the road map to completely freeze construction in the settlements. Issuing government-sanctioned tenders and permits for expanding Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem does not reconcile with improving the atmosphere and the demand to refrain from altering the status quo in the territories before a final outcome via negotiations.

During the proximity talks, the prime minister will have to present his position on the permanent border between Israel and the Palestinian state. We should hope that Netanyahu does not plan to adhere to his hard-line stance of recent months. During the Kadima government's final days, much progress was made and important understandings were reached in talks between Abbas and Ehud Olmert, as well as between Ahmed Qureia and Tzipi Livni. Any effort to restart talks from scratch, ignoring those same understandings, is a sure recipe for disaster.

As the coalition - as well as his own Likud faction - is currently constituted, Netanyahu cannot take far-reaching diplomatic steps. If Netanyahu is truly interested in carrying out "a historic move" vis-a-vis the Palestinians, as President Shimon Peres believes, he must immediately commence serious proximity talks with the Kadima leadership.