MIDDLE EAST: While waiting for the peace talks to begin ...
Since reopening with much fanfare last week, peace talks between Israel and Palestinians continue to generate the typical mood swings. Parades are promptly rained on, windows of opportunity pronounced open one minute are declared closing the next. The first local meeting was slated for the West Bank town of Jericho. Didn't happen.
The festive relaunch was shoehorned into the last opening available among Labor Day, the Jewish high holidays and the Muslim Eid al-Fitr, leaving everyone only a handful of working days to prepare for the next event, next week's meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, under the watchful eye of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But the next really important date is Sept. 26, the end of the settlement freeze. It's a pity, says Israel, that the Palestinians waited until the freeze was nearly over to talk. The Palestinians say talks will be over before they begin if construction resumes.
A frequent question these days is whether Netanyahu has crossed the Rubicon. Referring to the "West Bank" and not "Judea and Samaria" suggested to some a shift, to others just smarts. Using this term, certainly in the presence of the president of the U.S., is like writing a check: You can't take it back, writes commentator Ben Caspit. When Ariel Sharon used the O-word, "occupation," that also heralded a shift, but he didn't pursue a bilateral agreement.
Already a year ago, Ari Shavit wrote Netanyahu had crossed the Rubicon on ideological and practical levels and "reinvented himself as a centrist." Right-wing circles are concerned about the shift in rhetoric; he's sounding more like Sharon these days than Netanyahu before the elections, says Likud Party lawmaker Danny Danon.
When Julius Caesar crossed the original Rubicon, it wasn't in peace; he wittingly started a civil war that was neither short nor pretty -- but he won.
So, that partnership thing. Netanyahu turned to Abbas as his partner in peace. For the 10 years since the spirit of Camp David gave way to an armed intifada, many Israelis maintained that "there's no partner." The copyright to that phrase belongs to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who uttered it when he was prime minister. Using the term "partner" now is Netanyahu's way of claiming ownership over this incarnation of the process, says Tamar Hermann, a political scientist at the Israel Democracy Institute. This is his own move; he's not continuing something bequeathed to him by the left, she says.
Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of the Reut Institute and secretary of Israel's negotiation team a decade ago, says Netanyahu was right to emphasize the partnership over adversity, the delicate balance between, which is the stuff the art of negotiations is made of. But besides the antics of semantics, this can have practical effect if partnership in negotiations means each side must be attuned to the other's nuances and needs. Translation: The partners will have to understand Netanyahu's limitations and will have to settle for a de facto freeze in places where construction could affect the outcome of negotiations, Grinstein says.
So is this an aboutface, or about Facebook?
The Geneva Initiative group is running a media campaign featuring Palestinian leaders requesting "partnership" of Israelis on mock Facebook platforms. "Accept" and "ignore" are the options. As in life, the latter isn't really an option. "Even if you ignore them, they won't go away" is the message you get by clicking "ignore."
But what about Netanyahu's "natural partners," as he had referred to the political parties of Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas when he formed his coalition? Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, one senior partner, isn't shy about sharing his positions. Agreement within a year? Not even this generation, he says. Best keep expectations realistic so that inevitable disappointment doesn't destroy achievements on the ground. Settlements aren't the obstacle to peace or even the root of the conflict that predates1967, he says often. For their part, the Palestinians finally have pinpointed the greatest obstacle to peace: Lieberman.
Lieberman disagrees with Netanyahu but is staying out of his way. For now, a coalition partner. If push comes to shove, there will be others -- or elections. Netanyahu remembers how giving the Palestinians control over part of Hebron in his first term cost him dearly. Political commentator Hanan Kristal says Netanyahu is willing to pay the political price, but at the end, say, in a year. If he reaches an agreement, he'll have the Labor Party and probably Kadima to back him. But if he avoids progress, he'll lose Barak, who has a gentlemanly agreement with opposition leader Tzipi Livni that she won't join in his place.
It is often pointed out that public opinion in Israel has shifted to the right in recent years. Voting patterns may have shifted to the right but not necessarily public opinion, says Raviv Drucker, a commentator for Channel 10. Israelis may vote for right-wing parties because of changes in the political map, but the right wing itself has moved. A right wing that speaks of a two-state solution, an independent Palestinian state and the West Bank, is a long way from that of 20 years ago, Drucker says, making an interesting point. This isn't to say it is going to happen -- only that more Israelis, including on the right -- have a more realistic view of what "it" is going to look like.
-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem
Photos: At top, campaign banner from Peace Now website. Below, a settler campaign banner, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname, warns that "Bibi is repeating the Sharon precedent" that will lead to uprooting settlements.
Video: In the Geneva Initiative campaign, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says he wants to be Israelis' partner. Credit: YouTube