Yoel Marcus
Haaretz (Opinion)
September 17, 2010 - 12:00am

It's been a long time since negotiations elicited as many smiles and as positive an atmosphere as the Washington-Sharm-Jerusalem round of talks. The leaders, including two presidents and one king, enter closed sessions and emerge smiling, as though the meetings have turned into joke-telling competitions. Those setting the tone are U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington and his envoy here, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her figure somewhat fuller now than when she sweat out the contest against Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, she has hardly been photographed without a Sara Netanyahu-type grin from ear to ear.

Quite unusually, at least up until this point, there haven't been any leaks from the long talks either - only assessments given by veteran political commentators. The optimism is dictated from above, i.e. by Obama, who has decided to take our subject in hand, demonstrating a blatant change in his almost hostile attitude toward Israel.

In light of his eroding status around the world, the impression is that it is very important to the American president, both personally and strategically, to succeed here. And when the secretary of state emerges from a meeting with President Shimon Peres and declares that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are serious in their intentions to renew the peace process, for the time being this represents more a wish of Obama's than a realistic impression of the round of talks thus far.

Netanyahu demonstrated leadership when he agreed to freeze construction in the territories for 10 months. Nobody believed he would dare to stick to that decision until the end. The fact is, he not only passed the decision in the cabinet, but not one of his ministers - including those from Yisrael Beiteinu - resigned.

Still, we must recall that the prime minister not only made a commitment to the Palestinians and the Americans; he also made a promise to the Israeli public that he meant 10 months, "and not one day more." While he can be praised for doing something nobody did before him, there will almost certainly be those in his camp who won't forgive him if he breaks his promise to the Israelis.

In addition, the Palestinians refused to enter direct talks and wasted nine months. Had they conducted negotiations during the freeze, we might now be standing in another place entirely. The talks in Washington also made clear the profundity of the gaps between the two sides. Now that the sides have begun to speak directly under Obama's sponsorship, the entire issue of the freeze as a condition to talks is passe. It's possible to talk face to face and not to build at one and the same time in territories that we will evacuate in any case.

Now, when rockets are being launched from Gaza on an almost daily basis and the commander of the Hamas military wing, Ahmed Jabri, is threatening us with war, the question confronting us is whether the time has not come to do everything in our power to reach an agreement with the Palestinian Authority, instead of heading downhill toward a "war for the peace of the settlements Yitzhar and Tapuah." An extension of the building freeze is not essential to renew the direct talks under American sponsorship, based on an understanding with Obama that it will be "light" construction if any, to avoid creating chaos in the territories before we reach an overall agreement with the Palestinians. In the agreement with Egypt, we also signed first and later removed the Rafah Salient settlements.

The U.S. administration is maintaining a fog of war, but it is clear that Obama will be the one to decide whether white smoke will emerge from the White House chimney. The fact that Israel is starting to distribute gas masks at an accelerated pace implies that both we and the U.S. administration are worriedly keeping track of those same threats with which we will have to deal sooner or later.

Whether the Palestinians want to and can achieve a peace agreement is still up in the air. The same doubts exist regarding Netanyahu as well - does he have the stuff to make major decisions? Most of Likud is standing behind him, despite Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom's threats. And if Netanyahu managed to pass the freeze, he can pass anything in his cabinet - certainly with massive support from most of the public, which aspires to peace.

On Yom Kippur 37 years ago, we buried 2,700 fallen soldiers too many, in order to reach the conclusion foreign minister Moshe Dayan reached when he signed the peace treaty with Egypt: only a donkey never changes his mind.


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