Hussein Ibish
Foreign Policy (Opinion)
June 16, 2009 - 12:00am

The response from Palestinian and Arab leaders to Benjamin Netanyahu's defiant foreign policy speech last Sunday has so far consisted mainly of throwing up their hands in despair. While understandable given the prime minister's intransigence on Israel's prior commitment to a complete settlement freeze and other key issues, this approach is not likely to accomplish very much.

By reproducing rhetoric from the 1990s that led to massive Palestinian frustration, Netanyahu may be hoping to provoke a reaction that is more visceral than strategic. If the Palestinians and Arabs adopt a less than constructive attitude at this stage, there is every danger that President Barack Obama and his administration will conclude that the Israelis and the Palestinians are simply two recalcitrant and irresponsible parties that are impervious to reason, and walk away to focus on other matters. But Obama's new approach, combined with Netanyahu's unconstructive attitude, presents a rare opportunity for Palestinian leaders to seize the initiative in the peace process.

Rather than simply dismissing Netanyahu's words, it is vital that they instead move quickly to draw a stark contrast based on a constructive stance of their own, and position themselves in as close alignment as possible with the American president. The Palestinians should be emphasizing their moves to fulfil their road map commitment on security, as recently demonstrated by the Palestinian Authority's bold and politically costly security operations against Hamas militants in the West Bank.

A new initiative to bolster security measures by combating incitement by militant groups, as Obama urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to undertake at their White House meeting in May, would strongly reaffirm Palestinian seriousness to fully play their part in promoting peace and would be an effective means of keeping the focus on Israel's continued avoidance of its own responsibilities.

It is also important that the Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, express a sincere desire to engage productively in the peace process in response to significant Israeli moves such as a complete settlement freeze. They should frame such a move as operationalizing the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

Future public diplomacy efforts by the Palestinians and Arab States should also focus their attention on the mainstream American Jewish Community. A large number of American Jews support Obama's efforts to push Israel toward a settlement freeze, a fact Netanyahu is keenly aware of. He seems to be calculating that his rather tepid, theoretical acceptance of the concept of Palestinian statehood and his rhetorical invocations of Israeli nationalism might weaken support for the president's efforts. The extent to which Netanyahu is effective in gaining currency with this crucial constituency may be an important factor in determining whether the Obama can remain firm with the Israeli government without intolerable domestic political cost.

Obama has placed a great deal of political capital at stake on the issue of settlements. In order to successfully shift the Israeli government from its present position, he is going to need help.

If a settlement freeze can be achieved, along with reciprocal gestures from the Palestinian Authority and Arab states, such as maintaining security and continuing diplomatic overtures, the parties can move quickly into permanent status negotiations, tackling such bedrock questions as borders, refugees, Jerusalem, and security. Many on the Israeli right, possibly including Netanyahu, would prefer to avoid these issues because they may not yet be prepared to take the necessary steps to advance peace.

By supporting Obama's position through constructive measures, Palestinians and Arabs can greatly strengthen the prospects that permanent status talks become unavoidable, and that with strong American leadership the parties could soon find themselves in serious peace negotiations for the first time since


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