Netanyahu open to new talks; US may abdicate lead role to France

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during a ceremony honouring World War II veterans and marking the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany at the Armoured Corps Memorial and Museum at Latrun Junction near Jerusalem May 7, 2015. | REUTERS/Jack Guez/Pool

TEL AVIV (Christian Examiner) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told members of his newly formed government last week he is open to a new round of peace negotiations with Palestinian leaders, the Jerusalem Post reported May 18.

Netanyahu reportedly told members of the Likud Party behind closed doors last week he was tasking former foreign minister and current Vice Premier Silvan Shalom with overseeing the negotiations once headed by Tzipi Livni, who worked with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on previous peace talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a meeting of his new cabinet, in honor of Jerusalem Day, at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem May 19. | REUTERS/Atef Safadi/Pool

According to the paper, Shalom will focus on achieving a schedule of direct negotiations with the Palestinians in spite of their consistent appeals for the international community to dictate a solution to the long-standing conflict.

Netanyahu's openness for a new round of negotiations seems to stand in direct contradiction to the hardline stance he took prior to Israeli elections in March.

Then, Netanyahu said there would be "no two state solution" while he was prime minister. President Obama and other Democrats bristled at the comment, but Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said at the time that Netanyahu had been misunderstood.

The ambassador said the prime minister was referencing the changing facts on the ground, such as the refusal of the Palestinian Authority to work with him to achieve peace, their refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist, and security issues which would arise if the West Bank territory fell under the influence of the Islamic State  -- a real concern for Israel's military planners.

Netanyahu previously claimed in 2014 that he could envision two democratic states living beside each other in peace, provided the Palestinian state would be demilitarized and a strong strategic security agreement could be reached. Both are demands Palestinian authorities have rejected to date.

In the U.S. State Department's daily briefing May 18, Jeff Rathke, director of the department's press office was asked if Shalom's appointment was problematic for the Obama administration. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Shalom is not a current advocate of a two state solution and never has been.

Rathke said he had no comment on the appointment but stressed the White House and State Department "continue to believe that a two-state solution is vital not only for peace between Israelis and Palestinians but also for the long-term security of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state."

He also said it was no secret many in the Israeli government "do not necessarily believe in that premise."

In a May 15 interview with Al-Arabiya, the leading 24-hour, English-language news channel in the Middle East, President Obama said future peace negotiations will depend on both sides acknowledging the other's positions.

"I've said to the Israelis you cannot remain a state that is both a democracy and Jewish if you continue to have this problem unresolved. And with respect to the Palestinians, I've said that you cannot expect to have a state of your own and the full dignity and respect that is inherent for all human beings if you also don't recognize Israel, because Israel is not going anywhere," Obama told Al-Arabiya.

Obama said peace was possible with Israel and the Palestinians, the same way it was with Israel and Egypt. He told Arab leaders at a summit at Camp David the United States wants to be a "strong partner" in peace negotiations, but he could not promise "a big overarching deal."

It is entirely possible, however, that the U.S. is feigning helplessness and frustration in its efforts to reach a peace agreement, according to Alkiva Eldar, a former columnist for Haaretz.

Eldar wrote on AlMonitor, a leading news and analysis website in the Middle East, the U.S. is preparing to offer France the lead role in the peace process. To do so, he wrote, the U.S. will freeze its veto power at the United Nations for a period of time in an effort to strong arm Israel into accepting a settlement.

Freezing the U.S. veto could have disastrous consequences for Israel, but still "the move at the UN has been gaining momentum in diplomatic channels between the Foreign Ministry in Paris and the UN headquarters in New York," Eldar wrote.

Last week, Eldar wrote, a group of former European officials sent a letter to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini claiming the U.S. had a low probability of successful negotiations with Netanyahu, but that the EU could exert its influence over the process. A copy of the letter was reportedly sent to President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

According to the UK's Guardian newspaper, the letter mentioned a new draft resolution that is already being examined by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. The resolution would presumably recognize "a Palestine government-in-waiting for the territories within the pre-1967 borders, or the setting of a deadline for the recognition of a two-state solution."

Eldar said the former European leaders, "like Obama and his spokespeople ... believe that Netanyahu's re-election and the new coalition he has formed require a change in policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Eldar wrote.

"This change, they believe, starts with Europe moving from the back seat to a front-line diplomatic position and forging an effective and clear European Union policy."

The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini is due to visit both Israel and the West Bank in the coming days to begin discussions on the EU's role in peace negotiations, the Jordanian news agency Petra reported May 16.