Netanyahu, man of peace?

A columnist for a left-of-center Israeli newspaper made waves last month by suggesting that Israeli PM truly supported Palestinian statehood.  Ethan Bronner analyzes this possibility in the New York Times today.  Here is how he describes Netanyahu’s actions:

After a long career supporting Israeli settlement in occupied land and rejecting Palestinian statehood, Mr. Netanyahu said last June that he accepted two states. Three weeks ago, he imposed a 10-month freeze on building new residential Jewish housing in the West Bank, something no Israeli leader had done before. Settlers are outraged, and Mr. Netanyahu is facing a rebellion from within his party. Together with his removal of many West Bank checkpoints and barriers to Palestinian movement and economic growth, these steps went well beyond what many ever expected of him….

There is a school of thought, both here [in Israel] and in Washington, that says Mr. Netanyahu is going through the same shift experienced by previous hawks who became more conciliatory as prime ministers — Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.“As we say in Hebrew, things look different from there than they do from here,” observed Isaac Herzog, Israel’s welfare minister, who comes from the Labor party, referring to a saying that seeks to describe how responsibility blunts ideology. “My keen impression is that he is serious, perhaps more than people realize. He is saying ‘test me’ and I am afraid the world may be missing a golden opportunity.”

Shimon Peres, Israel’s president and a long-time advocate of a two-state solution, says he meets frequently with Mr. Netanyahu and seeks to serve as a sounding board and occasional guide. He believes that Mr. Netanyahu wants to cut a deal with the Palestinians but is worried about his political base.

Bronner describes the Palestinian reaction to Netanyahu:

But the Palestinians have concluded that they can get further by appealing to international bodies than returning to negotiations with this Israeli government. Mr. Abbas repeated his rejection of negotiations without a full settlement freeze at the start of a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council on Tuesday. Palestinian politics is also deeply divided not only between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank but also within each group.

A senior Israeli official acknowledged that the building stoppage was also aimed at the Obama administration, which had demanded a settlement freeze last spring.

“The credibility of the United States president is important to Israel so we had to respond in a positive way,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was actually decided in the summer but we waited while the Americans tried to get some response from the Palestinians and Arab states. When that failed we decided to go ahead anyway.”

The freeze was less than what was demanded by the Americans and Palestinians. It permits nearly 3,000 units to be completed, includes some 28 new public buildings and leaves East Jerusalem out. Still, senior American officials say it will greatly reduce the construction as the months roll on — as many as 15,000 by some estimates, including one by President Peres. In addition, the American officials say, if the Palestinians return to negotiations, the freeze will likely be extended.

This is one of the more optimistic pieces that I have read about Israeli-Palestinian peace, but of course it takes two sides to make peace.  And perhaps the Palestinian negotiators are justified in holding back.  I’m still trying to piece together a coherent way to look at this situation.

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