Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently been displaying his first signs of statesmanship. His decision to begin negotiations with the Palestinians, like his decision to release 104 Palestinian prisoners, may attest that the prime minister has finally internalized the need to extricate Israel from the diplomatic deep-freeze to which he has thus far sentenced it during his second and third terms of office.
Netanyahu proved on Sunday that if he wants to, he is capable of leading, and even of getting courageous measures approved. He got the cabinet to approve the prisoner release by a decisive majority, even though this is a right-wing government.
The growing international pressure, both American and European, bore fruit, and Netanyahu apparently understood that without a diplomatic process, Israel would be approaching the brink of a real abyss. Therefore, he mustered his courage and led the move to free the prisoners, in stark contrast to his declared position in the past, because this was a necessary condition for resuming negotiations. For this, he deserves great praise.
With the talks beginning in Washington last night, it must be hoped that the prime minister will continue to act like a valiant statesman who is capable of coping with the challenges Israel faces and of making decisions even bolder than the one to release the prisoners. This is not only the opportunity of a lifetime for Netanyahu, who until now hasn’t led any significant positive moves; it’s also Israel’s big opportunity to change its image and improve its international standing.
The decision on the prisoner release should teach Netanyahu an important lesson: If he wants to, he can get his cabinet to approve almost any decision, despite the opposition of its extremist right flank. From now on, he will no longer be able to hide behind the invalidated excuse that he really wants to, but can’t.
Israel must arrive at the negotiations in Washington armed not only with courage, but also with a sincere desire to reach a peace agreement. If Netanyahu intends only to hold talks for the sake of talking, in order to buy time and ease the international pressure on Israel a bit, he is adopting a dangerous and irresponsible policy. Past experience teaches that there’s nothing like failed negotiations to reignite the cycle of violence and bloodshed. The failure of the Washington talks would also further worsen Israel’s international standing: The world is sick of the occupation, and no excuse will absolve us of responsibility for it.
In Washington last night, a spark of hope was lit. Israel must not extinguish it.