Netanyahu's onerous tasks

10:38, December 23, 2009      

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by David Harris

With domestic rightist hard-liners still in a furor after the announcement of a partial freeze on settlement building in the West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has convened another round of protracted talks with his cabinet colleagues on whether to release some 1,000 Palestinians from its jails in exchange of freeing the Israeli captured soldier Gilad Shalit.

During the meetings, Benjamin Netanyahu, in the eyes of analysts, is again in an effort to reach an agreement on an internally divided issue that would please all parties of the politicians and the public as well as relieve the external pressures.


When Netanyahu won the general election some 10 months ago it was clear to all that his task as prime minister would be extremely difficult.

While he was able to forge a coalition with right-wing, hawkish parties, the largest single party in the Knesset (Israel's parliament) refused to join his government, preferring to fight from the ranks of the opposition. That party, Kadima, seemed to best represent public opinion regarding regional peace. In numerous polls, it was suggested that a majority of Israelis favor major territorial compromise.

Netanyahu's coalition partners see the peace process very differently and many lawmakers remain deeply opposed to Netanyahu's decision to impose a 10-month partial freeze on building starts in the West Bank.

Similarly, some members of Netanyahu's cabinet and coalition remain staunchly against the likely deal that will see the captured soldier Shalit returned to Israel after more than three years in the hands of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

While the vast majority of Israelis favor some sort of deal to see Shalit returned home, many oppose the idea of releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange. Some members of the Knesset, go as far as to argue that Israel should not free any Palestinians but rather impose such a strong stranglehold on Gaza that Hamas will be forced into letting him go.

That is definitely a minority view, but a poll published on Tuesday argued that just 52 percent of the population favors the return of prisoners of war at any cost.

That survey was published a day after senior Israeli ministers completed marathon talks on whether to agree to a deal with Hamas on the prisoner swap. The Israeli proposal has now been passed on to Hamas by a German mediator.

The same poll, by the Truman Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, points to 49 percent support for the settlement freeze and 42 percent against.


At the same time, Netanyahu has to take into account the various pressures overseas. On the Shalit issue, he has had the unnamed German mediator and Egypt's head of intelligence Omar Suleiman pacing the corridors of his office as he discussed Shalit's fate with his ministers. The two men reportedly wanted results from Netanyahu.

The Obama administration along with the other members of the international peace Quartet -- the United Nations, European Union and Russia -- are pushing for Israel to do its part, especially a total freeze on settlement construction, to allow the peace talks with the Palestinians to resume after a year's hiatus.

While the United States last week approved the latest military-aid package to Israel, it is clear that relations between Israel and Washington are not the best and Israel is concerned that it could be further isolated internationally if it does not do America's bidding. On the other hand, too much kowtowing towards Washington could cause an end to Netanyahu's hawkish coalition.

Zaki Shalom, a researcher at The Ben-Gurion Research Institute of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in southern Israel is of the opinion that Netanyahu is actually performing quite a good balancing act.

He differentiates the various pressures on Netanyahu, arguing that each must be seen and treated independently. With regards to the Palestinians, for example, he believes that with the announcement of the settlement freeze, Netanyahu silenced much of the criticism from Washington.

He said the Americans are turning a blind eye to any Israeli breaches of the freeze but that arrangement has given Netanyahu sufficient wiggle room not only to satisfy the Americans but also the political right at home. The freeze is not total and it does not apply to Jerusalem and is only in place for 10 months.

On the prisoner deal, Shalom agrees "there is intense pressure," but he feels that Netanyahu is taking it in his stride. The prime minister has moved in the direction of an agreement, all that has to be settled are the final specifics.


Former dovish lawmaker and political scientist Naomi Hazan argues that the fault lies with Netanyahu rather than the pressures he faces.

"I don't know what his policies are," said Hazan, who heads the School of Government and Society and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Academic College.

A leader must be decisive no matter what they face, she argues. "This is not about the stability of the coalition versus the decision-making process. This is simply the inability to make decisions," Hazan said on Tuesday.

However, Shalom argues that one cannot simply make decisions impulsively or hastily. On the Shalit front, there are all sorts of interests at play -- Germany, the United States, the Israeli media, voters and more. "You need to know how to maneuver between them. Something he is doing quite well," she said.

Israel is awaiting Hamas' answer to Netanyahu's offer on an exchange of prisoners, while Israeli security forces are closely monitoring events in the West Bank, where some settlers are extremely disappointed by the construction freeze even if it is only temporary and partial.

Source: Xinhua
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