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Netanyahu caught between rock and hard place
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08:57, August 04, 2009

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During his first four months in office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has time and again shown just how easy it is to loose one's balance on the tightrope of Israeli politics as it runs over the "minefield" of international diplomacy.

On Sunday alone, two stories showed this dichotomy on the micro level.

The United Nations and the United States are leading the protests after two Arab families were evicted from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem and were replaced by two Jewish families. The background to the case is somewhat complex, with the courts agreeing that the properties belonged to a Jewish organization.

However, the eviction of the families, who are registered as refugees, is extremely bad press for Israel. Headlines on the story over the last 24 hours have included "Palestinian families evicted from homes," "PNA: Israel kills peace chances by evicting Palestinian families," "Israel condemned over forced evictions" and "Israeli settlers are wrecking peace process."

Then, to rub salt in Netanyahu's wounds, the settler movement went on the offensive attacking the government for its decision to open to Palestinian traffic a road that connects Hebron in the West Bank to the nearby settlement Kiryat Arba. Settlers say the road was the site of numerous terror attacks against Jews and they fear more will now take place.

As this and more happening on the ground, Netanyahu clarified his peace policies during the weekly cabinet meeting.

This week is the fourth anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and its removal of some 7,500 Israelis who lived there.

"We are not prepared to countenance rocket and missile fire of any kind on our cities, neither barrages nor individual firings. All firing will be vigorously responded to," the prime minister said.

Peace, he added, will be based on reciprocity rather than unilateralism.

"In the framework of the peace agreements, Israel expects that the Palestinians will recognize the State of Israel as the national state of the Jewish People, that the problem of the refugees will be resolved outside Israel's borders, that there will be effective security arrangements and demilitarization, with international recognition and guarantees," Netanyahu said, reiterating his key policy speech on June 14.

Israel wants to open talks with any Arab nation without preconditions, he stressed, concluding that he is also seeking an economic peace with the Palestinians.

These and other comments are part of Netanyahu's bid to please all parties, internationally and domestically. However, the Americans, Palestinians and the wider international community have made it clear time and again that Netanyahu and all previous Israeli leaders would be judged on their actions rather than their words.

"Clearly Netanyahu wants to make this process as long as possible," said Yoram Peri of the Center for Israel Studies at American University in Washington D.C..

He perceives the pressures on Netanyahu are coming from the United States that wants to see an early conclusion to the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts, and from the Israeli political right. The Israeli left, or dovish camp, has all but disappeared in the government, with the exception of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is trying to push Netanyahu towards peace deals, but does not argue this from a position of political strength at this stage.

There is one potentially bright piece of news for Netanyahu when it comes to political pressure. The governmental "kingmaker" Avigdor Lieberman is currently in a considerable amount of personal trouble and could well be forced to resign. Israel's police force has recommended he be indicted on a series of corruption charges. On Monday, Lieberman said he would resign if indicted by the attorney general.

As foreign minister and head of the hawkish Israel Beiteinu party, Lieberman has considerable hold over Netanyahu and the coalition's diplomatic policies.

"The moment that Lieberman's party remains in the coalition without Lieberman himself, that pressure would dissipate, and that is a very dramatic change," said Peri.

However, he acknowledges that there is a more fundamental problem: Netanyahu himself is not happy with the process that the U.S. is trying to encourage him to adopt.

In the meanwhile, the settler movement is well funded and has proved in the past it is highly motivated for civil disobedience to prevent Netanyahu from taking more than a few steps towards the Americans and Palestinians.

Israel is perfectly capable of using its considerable policing and military powers to evict and restrain troublesome settlers but has so far been unwilling to do so on a large scale. Barak has promised he will remove illegal outposts, but that does not take into consideration the 250,000 settlers currently living in towns and villages across the West Bank.

Obama has repeatedly stated he wants a halt to all settlement activities, which the Palestinians have made their key precondition to peace.

Netanyahu is trying to create the circumstances whereby as many of those settlers as possible will be allowed to remain in their homes in any final-status agreement. If he sees that as being unacceptable to his interlocutors, Netanyahu, for reasons personal, political and nationalistic, will choose to slow the peace process down as much as he is able.

Source: Xinhua

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