Netanyahu's Second Change

by Alon Ben-Meir Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.
Web: www.alonben-meir.com
08.04.2009

The new Israeli government led by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has raised
many conflicting feelings among those concerned about the fate of the
Arab-Israeli peace process. Will Netanyahu scuttle the little progress that was
made under his predecessor Olmert, or will he engage the Palestinians anew?
Questions about whether he will resume negotiations with Syria, how he will
tackles Iran's nuclear threat, and if he will get along with President Obama
remain unanswered. Yet given the right political environment created by the
Obama administration and supported by the leading Arab states and the
Palestinians, Netanyahu has the potential to advance the peace negotiations
significantly, and may end up surprising everyone in the process.

On the positive side, those who know him well suggest that Netanyahu has matured
considerably since he was first prime minister (1996-1999). He is well aware
that he may never be given another opportunity as prime minister and that he now
stands before an historic crossroad. Netanyahu understands the requirements for
peace from being at the negotiating table many times before. He appreciates the
Israeli public sentiments and is certainly not oblivious to what the Obama
administration expects from any Israeli prime minister at this juncture in a
region laden with multiple crises. Moreover, the eyes of the international
community are fixed on him and he is only too aware of the burden he has just
assumed and the limited time he has to demonstrate sound policies. Netanyahu has
said he wants peace with security for his country. He argues for strengthening
the Palestinian economy and engaging in the peace process, while not excluding
making progress on the Syrian front. Iran still poses the largest security
threat to Israel, and Netanyahu insists that it must be neutralized.

There is nothing from his tough campaign rhetoric that precludes the
establishment of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. While the appointment of
the right-wing Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister may have signaled to many a
shift away from any peacemaking efforts, it is likely that Netanyahu will use
Lieberman strategically for his tough rhetoric to satisfy the more hawkish
Israeli constituency. When it comes down to the bargaining table though, once
Netanyahu feels he has an honest shot at peace with security he will not let
Lieberman get in his way. Persuading Labor to join his coalition government and
Ehud Barak as his Defense Minister also shifts the balance of power toward
moderation. His coalition may well signal that the future peace process will be
anchored in tight security arrangements, and that he and Barak can offer the
toughness and leverage needed to secure such a peace. Netanyahu and Barak are
capable of negotiating simultaneously with both Syria and the Palestinians.
Though the peace negotiations with the Palestinians will be painstaking and take
much longer to conclude, a steady progress can still be made aggressively while
pursuing the Syrian track.

Alternatively, left to his own ideological convictions and without American
pressure, Netanyahu can easily retreat back to his old ways. Palestinian
disunity and internal struggle within the Arab states will make finding a
partner for peace extremely difficult. He will likely expand the settlements,
respond harshly to Hamas' violent provocations, and focus exclusively on Iranian
threats while relegating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the back
burner. He might even ignore Syria's overtures for peace, especially because
Damascus is not in a position to regain the Golan by force. It is possible
Netanyahu will only attempt to pay lip service to the Obama's political agenda
in the Middle East, and will cooperate only on matters of national security.

These are the two sides to Netanyahu, though they are not necessarily
contradictory. He can lean either direction depending on the level, intensity
and consistency of the American involvement not only in trying to mediate an
Israeli-Palestinian peace but engaging all other regional players in conflict
resolution. To enlist Netanyahu as a partner for peace, President Obama must be
specific and clear about what must and can be done to advance the peace process
while addressing Israel's main national security concerns, starting with Iran.

The Obama administration needs to heavily cooperate with Israel over Iran's
nuclear program, and must demonstrate greater sensitivity to Israel's concerns
over this existential threat. Whereas a diplomatic course with Tehran must be
fully explored by the US, it must commence immediately so that any possible
resolution to the nuclear impasse can be found within 2009, a timeframe that is
considered safe before Israel contemplates taking matters into its own hands.

While President Obama must support Netanyahu's plan to build a strong economic
base for the Palestinians, he must at the same time insist that a political
progress is also being made especially in the West Bank. In that connection,
George Mitchell and the Obama administration must be clear with Netanyahu that
all illegal outposts are dismantled and a temporary freeze on all settlement
activity is enforced. These actions have almost no security implications for
Israel, but they create conditions that must exist for the Palestinians and Arab
states to take the negotiations seriously.

As Mr. Obama recently embraced the Arab Peace Initiative when he met with the
Saudi King Abdullah in London, he must now lean heavily on the leading Arab
states, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria as well (now that Washington
and Damascus are talking) to exert whatever pressure necessary on Hamas to
moderate and join the political process. They must resolve now to rein in Hamas
and establish a Palestinian unity government with the Palestinian Authority that
can speak in one voice. Moreover, the Obama administration must take every
measure necessary to prevent future smuggling of weapons to Gaza. Otherwise, as
long as Hamas has weapons and continues to violently resist Israel's existence,
it will provide Netanyahu with a valid excuse to freeze the Israeli-Palestinian
negotiations.

President Obama must also openly call on Netanyahu to put the Israeli-Syrian
negotiations on the fast track and be prepared to become directly involved in
the process. By engaging Syria, the Obama administration can re-contextualize
the peace process and give it the comprehensiveness that has been lacking. Peace
between Israel and Syria is within reach and could have broad regional security
implications serving both the United States' as well as Israel's national
security interests. Moreover, without Israeli-Syrian rapprochement, the task of
dealing with Iran will be simply insurmountable.

To be sure, Netanyahu knows that this is his second and likely final chance to
advance the Arab-Israeli peace process, but he is not prepared to undermine
Israel's legitimate national security concerns for the sake of claiming the
peace. As long as President Obama discerns those genuine national security
issues and addresses them effectively with Netanyahu, he may find the new
Israeli Prime Minister a willing partner for sustainable peace.


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