Douglas Bloomfield
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
July 22, 2010 - 12:00am

About the only thing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have in common these days is a conviction that the other is bluffing when he says he is ready to make peace. But so far neither has shown the courage to call the other’s bluff.

Abbas seems to change his conditions for moving to direct talks almost daily. The only thing that seems certain is that he is in no hurry to meet Netanyahu face-to-face. It’s easy to get the impression that he wants to stall long enough for the Obama administration to get frustrated enough to step in with an American peace plan that it will impose on Israel – not a likely scenario, despite the alarmed e-mails of the Jewish right.

Netanyahu has never had much enthusiasm for the peace process and only under great pressure and begrudgingly was he compelled to endorse the two-state solution and adopt a 10-month perforated moratorium on West Bank construction.

Like Abbas, he also hopes the Americans will grow frustrated with the stalled process, but instead of stepping in he wants Washington to walk away from a situation it deems hopeless. He looks to his supporters in the US to make the price of pressing for peace politically unbearable for the administration, especially if Republicans do well in November’s congressional elections.

Netanyahu was in Washington this month to make shalom with President Barack Obama after a year of rocky relations that have created political problems at home for Obama but done nothing to advance the peace process. The two leaders declared a mutual desire to see peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and to move quickly to direct negotiations. It was part of Netanyahu’s strategy to put the onus for any stalling on Abbas.

Obama declared, “I believe Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I believe he is ready to take risks for peace.”

I don’t know if he genuinely believed it, but I doubt he would have said that if he had seen a video that surfaced last weekend showing Netanyahu boasting how he had snookered the Clinton administration – he called Clinton “radically pro-Palestinian” – and derailed the Oslo peace process the first time he was prime minister a decade ago.

The newly surfaced tape was made in 2001, two years after Netanyahu was defeated for reelection by Ehud Barak, who is now his defense minister. He was speaking to a group of terror victims in the West Bank settlement of Ofra and was unaware his comments were being recorded.

“I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction. They won’t get their way,” he said on the tape aired by Channel 10.

“They asked me before the election if I’d honor [the Oslo accords],” he continued. “I said I would, but... I’m going to interpret the accords in such a way that would allow me to put an end to this galloping forward to the ’67 borders. How did we do it? Nobody said what defined military zones were. Defined military zones are security zones; as far as I’m concerned the entire Jordan Valley is a defined military zone. Go argue.” As a result, he bragged, “I de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords.”

That was nine years ago. Is there a “New Bibi?” Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy wrote, “Don’t try to claim that he has changed since then. Such a crooked way of thinking does not change over the years.” Netanyahu, he said, is “a con artist” who thinks “Washington is in his pocket and that he can pull the wool over its eyes.”

Netanyahu told Obama that he believes it is possible to reach an agreement with the Palestinians by 2012, which just happens to be the president’s target date and, coincidentally, in time for bragging rights in his reelection campaign.

What he didn’t mention was that signing an agreement is one thing (I’m not convinced Netanyahu really wants an agreement but he finds it useful to say so in light of Abbas’s continued refusal to confront him in direct talks), implementing is another; that could take years, perhaps a decade or two.

“Time is a crucial element both for security and for other critical elements of a solution” and it is necessary to ”build in a time factor to any type of solution,” Netanyahu told the Council on Foreign Relations.

Implementation must be gradual – the Egyptian peace treaty took three years – but Netanyahu’s talk of the time element takes on new significance in light of his boasting of how he killed the Oslo peace process.

By now Abbas has seen the tape and read the transcript, and must feel some justification for his mistrust of Netanyahu and refusal to begin direct talks.

Does Netanyahu think he snookered Obama the way he did Clinton? What does this tape tell a president who already had serious doubts about Netanyahu’s sincerity? And does Obama really care, or has he concluded that with two such unwilling partners, peace negotiations aren’t worth much of an investment by his administration?


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