Jonathan Ferziger
May 19, 2011 - 12:00am

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been preparing to greet President Barack Obama at the White House tomorrow with a proposal to resurrect Middle East peace talks, advisers said.

That was until Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this month signed a reconciliation accord with Hamas -- classified as a terrorist group by Israel and the U.S. -- and dozens of Palestinians from Syria breached a border May 15, with similar efforts on three other fronts.

Netanyahu decided, his advisers said, that peace talks can wait.

“Three week ago, it was his intention to convey a message that would express his commitment to the resumption of negotiations aimed at establishing a Palestinian state,” said Zalman Shoval, a foreign policy adviser traveling with Netanyahu in the U.S. and a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. “All that was turned topsy-turvy.”

Palestinians paint the scenario differently, saying Netanyahu has never been serious about the peace process and keeps offering repackaged proposals they’ve already rejected.

Netanyahu and Obama meet Friday amid Palestinian efforts to seek United Nations recognition for an independent state in September. Obama has also been pressing for a resumption of peace talks, which were launched in Washington last year and broke down weeks after they began following Netanyahu’s refusal to extend a 10-month partial settlement construction freeze that Palestinian leaders demanded.
‘Ever Have One’

“Netanyahu did not have a peace plan before the reconciliation and not during or after the reconciliation,” Saeb Erakat, Abbas’s chief negotiator, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think he will ever have one.”

Emboldened by popular protests forcing change across the Arab world, Palestinian leaders have been focusing on uniting the West Bank and Gaza Strip and have largely abandoned efforts to continue talks with Israel that they consider fruitless.

“Netanyahu needs to stop putting all these barriers in the way and come back to peace talks so we can build a Palestinian state,” said Ali al-Wazeer, 26, who works at a print shop in Gaza City. “Palestinians will never go back to the negotiating table while Israel keeps building settlements.”

The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been divided since 2006, when Hamas took control of Gaza with a violent purge of officials from Abbas’s Fatah movement. Since then, the Palestinian Authority has ruled only the West Bank.
Broad Support

Netanyahu’s caution parallels the fears of his voters who are concerned that pro-democracy protests throughout the Arab world will lead to regimes that are more hostile to Israel, while Palestinian unity will increase the influence of Hamas, which doesn’t recognize the state of Israel.

“The reconciliation has solidified Netanyahu’s position at home and plays to his strengths as a tough-talker,” Aaron David Miller, a former member of the U.S. team mediating Middle East peace talks. “He is no longer the bad guy. He is under no pressure to make any concessions in these circumstances.”

Netanyahu told the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, this week that he has not given up on peace talks with the Palestinians. He outlined a series of requirements, though, that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected in the past as conditions for a peace agreement, including Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” and that no Palestinian refugees be resettled in Israel.

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, head of the Kadima Party, said Netanyahu is “going to the U.S. with no vision or action plan.”
New Initiative

Netanyahu was considering a new initiative that would have called for a phased peace process if Palestinians balked at a comprehensive agreement, a government official said in March, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Netanyahu’s Oval Office meeting comes a day after Obama is to give a speech outlining his approach to trying to improve U.S. relations with the Arab world. Both Netanyahu and the U.S. president will address the annual policy conference next week of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israeli lobbying group. Netanyahu is scheduled to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress May 24 before he returns to Israel.

Palestinians say they expect little from all the diplomatic activity.

“It’s clever of Obama to present all these speeches addressing the Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians, but he really can’t do anything practical on the ground,” Talal Oukal, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in the Gaza Strip, said in a phone interview. “Nobody thinks he’ll be able to convince Netanyahu to change his policies and freeze settlement.”


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