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News analysis: New Israeli government augurs somber prospect for old peace talks
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09:26, April 01, 2009

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Israel on Tuesday finally instated a new regular government on Tuesday, yet accompanying the birth of the rightist-dominated administration is pervasive pessimism over the decades-old peace process with the Palestinians.

The swearing-in of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet put a lid on a political turmoil that had for over six months confined the Jewish state to a lame caretaker leadership under Ehud Olmert, whose decision-making authority on significant diplomatic affairs was called in question and placed under restraint.

Since scandal-enveloped Olmert was forced to resign last September, Palestinian officials have been blaming the governmental instability on the Israeli side, for the stalemate preventing progress in the peace process between the two neighbors.

Now with Israel's political rainstorm gone, however, a peace rainbow is still not expected to follow up. In light of the configuration of the new government and the traditional tough stance held by right-wing parties on the peace process, many officials and analysts cautioned that rough weather is not over yet.

Within the 69-seat ruling coalition in the 120-seat parliament, the 13-seat Labor party is the only partner from the left-wing bloc, which is the only perceivable force that would help counterbalance the dominance of the right-wing bloc, which is headed by Netanyahu's Likud party.

During his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s, Netanyahu put a brake on the Oslo peace process even at the risk of falling out with the then U.S. administration under President Bill Clinton.

During the past three years, the opposition leader blasted Olmert's government for the concessions it was willing to make in the peace talks. In the months around the Feb. 10 parliamentary election, he publicly voiced support for settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Claiming that the Palestinians are not ready for statehood, Netanyahu has long been insisting that peace efforts should be first concentrated on developing the Palestinian economy. Yet the Palestinians rejected the argument outright, and accused him of attempting to blur political issues with economic topics.

Besides the new prime minister himself, all his right-wing coalition partners, namely Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and Jewish Home, traditionally support expanding settlements and oppose dividing Jerusalem. The Labor party is relatively moderate, yet its counterbalancing influence is widely seen as limited.

Meanwhile, commanding the diplomatic front in the new government is Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, a firebrand figure whose tough stance toward Israeli Arabs has triggered bitter controversy and racism accusations.

His presumptuous remarks in September that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could "go to hell" if he continued declining to visit the Jewish state notably chilled the relations between the two neighbors.

Possibly amid fears of rebellion of his hardline right-wing allies, Netanyahu has never in public paid even lip service to thet wo-state principle, a guideline strongly backed by the international community, including Israel's main ally the United States and the European Union, which is considering upgrading relations with Israel.

Last week, the Obama administration, which has vowed to vigorously pursue a two-state solution to the historic conflict, admitted that peace efforts under a Netanyahu-led government were not getting any easier.

The European Union also urged Netanyahu to accept the principle and warned of "consequences" if he would not.

The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was closely following "the rise of extremist forces" in Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at the Arab summit in Doha on Monday, while urging the Mideast Quartet of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union to "pressure Israel into choosing the path of peace."

Noting the tough stances shared by Israel's right-wing parties, Palestinian Foreign Minister Reyad al-Malki said earlier this month that such a government should be described as "an anti-peace government" and the PNA would not enter into negotiations with such a government.

In what is widely considered as his efforts to soothe the concerns of the international community, Netanyahu recently made repeated pledges that he would press forward with the peace process and would be a partner for peace talks, although the two-state principle has still not reached his tongue.

"I am telling the leaders of the Palestinian National Authority: if you really want peace, it is possible to reach peace," he said on Tuesday at the swearing-in ceremony of his government, adding that his government "will work toward peace on three tracks: economic, security and political ones."

However, even though Netanyahu might engage in peace talks with the Palestinians, he would not dwell upon any of the core issues, and his objective would most likely be just to reach some type of interim and partial agreement, said Shlomo Brom, a senior researcher with the Institute for National Security Studies.

The new prime minister might "soften his wording," ease traffic restrictions on Palestinian residents in the West Bank, and help build the Palestinian economy, but he is unlikely to pursue serious talks on settlement, Jerusalem and other essential subjects, the retired brigade-general told Xinhua on Tuesday.

Commenting on speculations that such overtures might put Netanyahu on a collision course with the United States, Brom said that the Obama government, with its plate full of other weighty affairs, would apply some pressure on Israel, "but no more than that." "The Israel-U.S. relations will not be dramatically affected."

With an Israeli government unwilling to negotiate core issues, if the international community, especially the United States, fails to put enough pressure, the peace process will be all but certain to remain trapped in a stalemate.

Meanwhile, Dan Diker, director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told Xinhua on Monday that the Palestinian situation also poses a major threat to the U.S.-backed two-state solution.

"The Obama government understands that in the current situation, with Hamas controlling Gaza and Fatah corrupted, fractured and very weak in the West Bank, it would be virtually impossible in the coming time to negotiate a robust, safe, secure two-state solution," said Diker.


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