Time's A-wasting

Following America's announcement that the Israel-Palestinian peace process would be resumed in the form of indirect talks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he hoped the proximity talks would quickly lead to direct talks, and thence to an agreement.As Haaretz reported yesterday, the Obama administration has acceded to Israel's request that the understandings reached by the previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, with the Palestinian leadership be taken off the table. The United States made it clear that the Netanyahu government is obligated only to the agreements signed by Israel and the Palestinians and to the road map, which the Sharon government ratified.

From a formal, legal standpoint, the Netanyahu government is indeed not obligated by its predecessors' positions, nor by understandings reached with the Palestinians that did not ripen into agreements. However, Netanyahu's demand that the talks begin "from square one" - as is implied by the phrase "without preconditions" - and ignore all prior talks puts the process at risk of failure, or at least of unnecessary complications.

In Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, he himself conducted secret talks with Syria based on the understandings that Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres reached in their peace talks with former Syrian president Hafez Assad - even if, as he claims, he made changes to them. If the Syrian channel is reopened, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday he believed it would be, Netanyahu certainly cannot imagine that President Bashar Assad would "forget" the progress made in previous talks. The same principle should guide Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

His insistence on starting all over again raises the suspicion that Netanyahu would rather drag his feet in a "diplomatic process" than make progress toward a final-status agreement. This suspicion is reinforced by a statement by Moshe Ya'alon, deputy prime minister and member of the inner circle of seven ministers: He said the Palestinian Authority's willingness to hold proximity talks mediated by the Americans "does not bode well."

If Netanyahu really wants to implement a two-state solution, he must take advantage of previous understandings in order to translate this vague formula into a permanent-status agreement as soon as possible - because time is not on the side of either Israel's interests or those of its Palestinian partners.