The National (Editorial)
December 30, 2009 - 1:00am

Again Benjamin Netanyahu holds out a poisoned chalice disguised as a peace initiative. The Israeli prime minister has played a wily game this past year to placate international pressure for a peace deal and the demands of his right-wing domestic coalition. During his recent visit to Cairo, Mr Netanyahu was praised for “moving forward” on peace negotiations, although the visit came the day after Israel announced plans for 700 new homes in East Jerusalem.

New construction in East Jerusalem, which is not covered by the 10-month settlement “freeze” in the West Bank, lays a trap. Mr Netanyahu pays lip service to peace in Cairo, while reassuring his domestic base with concrete action on the ground. If condemnation of the construction blocks further negotiations, he scores a rhetorical victory about the other side’s unwillingness to negotiate. He masks Israel’s own intransigence while making it more difficult for the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table.

The range of issues addressed in Cairo – peace talks, negotiations for the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and Egypt’s wall on the Gaza border – underscores how necessary negotiations are. The international community has far more to lose by mincing words than upsetting the Israeli public. Egypt in particular risks its regional standing by praising Mr Netanyahu for what are, as yet, empty gestures. And the United States’ lukewarm criticism of Israel undercuts its ability to lead.

It has been a mistake to play by the rules of this narrow game. That includes the Palestinians’ insistence on a real settlement freeze before negotiations can begin. Waiting for this Israeli government to find the political will to make concessions is a dead-end strategy. Construction in the Occupied Territories, whether in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, will remain illegal under UN resolutions regardless. Only negotiations will determine the final facts on the ground, a conclusion that the present Israeli government wants to avoid.

The real question is whether Palestinian negotiators, particularly the president Mahmoud Abbas, can muster the domestic capital to break the impasse despite their duplicitous negotiating partner. It may be too much to ask, but until then Mr Netanyahu will continue to hold the initiative.


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