Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu objects to the French initiative for a peace conference in Paris, and insists on direct negotiations without preconditions. Netanyahu’s opposition has not deterred French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who visited Jerusalem and Ramallah this week and pledged to continue preparations for the summit, which he presented as a service to Israeli interests.
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The needless dispute with France serves Netanyahu as a new pretext to play for time and evade an agreement with the Palestinians. Instead of discussing at length whether the talks will take place in Paris or Jerusalem, whether participants will be offered croissants or pitas and what the waiters will wear, Netanyahu should declare an Israeli peace initiative, and state what he believes is essential and what he would agree to compromise on to fulfill the “Bar-Ilan vision” for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Netanyahu wants Palestinian recognition of Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” as a condition for an agreement, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refuses? One can debate whether this recognition is essential, but if the prime minister thinks so much of it, let him say what he is willing to give the Palestinians in exchange: an upgraded capital in Jerusalem? Israeli recognition of the Nakba? Perhaps there is some price in exchange for which even a stubborn negotiator like Abbas will be willing to say “Jewish state.”
Since he returned to the government seven years ago, Netanyahu has obstinately refused to present a detailed position on the core issues of the peace process: borders, settlements, security arrangements, Jerusalem and refugees. He prefers to appear the ardent suitor rejected by Abbas who does not want to meet him, instead of presenting a proposal for peace and seeing how the Palestinians respond.
Netanyahu’s talks with Zionist Union chairman MK Isaac Herzog on expanding the government is pulling the rug from under the prime minister’s claim that he is politically dependent on the extreme right. An Israeli peace initiative would be a justifiable reason for Herzog to join the government and Habayit Hayehudi’s departure from it, as opposed to the current bargaining that focuses on the depth of the humiliation the Zionist Union will undergo on its way to the coalition. With Herzog in the Foreign Ministry and Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett in the opposition, and support from the outside by Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, Meretz and the Joint Arab List, Netanyahu will have a huge political majority for any serious proposal he makes.
Instead of fighting the French, Netanyahu should take advantage of the Paris summit as a basis to rally international support for his initiative. He should lead and not be dragged. He should take advantage of the diplomatic and political opportunities that he has chanced upon to resuscitate the peace process and realize the vision he presented in 2009. This way he will contribute to Israel’s future and its security much more than by empty arguments with foreign statesmen.