All Unclear Over Israeli Policy

JERUSALEM — How genuine is Israel’s new leadership about peace when the Prime Minister says that he will go a long way towards striving for a settlement with the Palestinians, but purposefully omits to endorse an independent Palestinian state; and, when his foreign minister warns, "If you want peace, prepare for war," a blunt statement on which the prime minister stays studiously silent?

A week ago, Israeli officials and academics heard from several prominent European and U.S. policy-makers that their opening attitude to the new Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu would be non-confrontational: Netanyahu would be judged by what he does, not by what he said during his election campaign, and the world expects Israel not to strike an unyielding hard-line stance, the Israelis close to the now prime minister heard from their prominent international interlocutors. These included EU Minister of Foreign Affairs Javier Solana and Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and U.S. senators.

Introducing his government for parliamentary approval late Tuesday night, Netanyahu declared, "We do not want to rule the Palestinians. Under the permanent status agreement, the Palestinians will have all the authority necessary to rule themselves." He added that his government would honor all previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The debate continues to swirl, not just within the international community but within Israel itself: Is it possible that the man who’s never feared showing his commitment to an unrelenting right-wing narrative that the whole of historic Palestine is the Jewish homeland, can have changed his spots?

His statement to the Knesset suggests that he will be more open to new peace initiatives for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But, looked at it closely, the pledge really amounts to a serious back-track to the days, 30 years ago, when Israel signed a peace agreement with Egypt and when there was but glancing mention of prospects of self-rule for the Palestinians — nothing about a full-fledged state.

What could be viewed as even more alarming about the current Israeli government’s opening position is what Netanyahu failed to say after his outspoken foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman had his Apr. 1 say.

Lieberman promotes himself as the original WYSIWYG man — "What You See Is What You Get," or, as he himself puts it, "What I say is no bluff — it’s really what I mean." Referring to how Israel would approach any new peace process, Lieberman said in an interview to Haaretz newspaper just hours after taking over his new post, "Israel undertook obligations regarding the Road Map and will honor them. But, there must be Palestinian reciprocity." His straight talk cuts both ways, he points out, noting that he’d voted against the Road Map as a minister in a previous government.

Earlier, at the handover ceremony at the foreign ministry, Lieberman struck an aggressive posture, declaring that the new government would not be bound by the U.S.-sponsored Annapolis process under which the outgoing Israeli leadership had been conducting peace negotiations in a bid to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians once and for all. "Whoever thinks he can achieve something through concessions only invites more pressure and more wars — if you want peace, prepare for war," added Lieberman to the shock of the diplomatic cadre who will be charged with trying to sell this uncompromising Israeli approach to the world.

On the other hand, in his newspaper interview, Lieberman pulled no punches in criticizing the outgoing government for failing to meet Israel’s own obligations under the Road Map provisions: "How many settlement outposts did they evacuate? How many roadblocks did they remove?" he asked pointedly.

Outspoken hardliner that he is, whom some critics label an out-and-out bully (before launching into national politics, he worked as a bouncer at a university discotheque), Lieberman has proven himself something of a maverick: he has spoken of his readiness to countenance the two-state solution and declared he’d even be prepared to leave his West Bank settlement home, Nokdim — provided the terms were right. "However," he said, "we can’t give it all up for nothing. There must be reciprocity."

That rings a bell from the previous Netanyahu government when Lieberman was the director of the prime minister’s office, a time when Netanyahu’s favorite slogan was, "You give, you get; you don’t give, you don’t get." The world will be following closely not only whether Netanyahu has become more conciliatory than he was when prime minister previously from 1996 to 1999, but just how much he and his foreign minister still see eye-to-eye.

On the possibility of common ground with Syria, Lieberman took the "reciprocity" principle to a literal WYSIWYG conclusion: "We will not agree to withdraw from the Golan Heights. Peace will be only in exchange for peace." On Egypt, he tried to soften earlier harsh criticism of President Hosni Mubarak whom he had chided, "could go to hell" should the Egyptian leader continue to refrain from an official visit to Israel. (In another instance, Lieberman suggested ominously that in the event of a deterioration of the "cold peace" between the two countries, Egypt’s Aswan dam could be a target). On Wednesday, the now foreign minister told the diplomats, "Egypt is an important factor in the Arab world and in the world in general…I respect others but I want them to respect us. I support the principle of reciprocity."

The Israeli-Arab conflict is lingering in a state of dangerous tit-for-tat diplomatic limbo. The international community is all too aware that. But as it grapples with how to revive the peace process, it will need to come to terms with a two-pronged challenge: on one hand, the regression in Israel’s attitude to its Arab neighbors — both those who have signed peace treaties, and those who have yet to do so. And on the other hand, in Arab attitude, as reflected in this week’s warning from the Arab League summit in Doha, that if Israel continues to ignore the Arab Peace Initiative for a comprehensive settlement, the offer will not last forever.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.