Netanyahu faces onerous tasks amid internal, external pressures

10:53, December 23, 2009      

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by David Harris

The Israeli government is facing tough decisions during the past few weeks on whether to release more than 1,000 what it called "dangerous prisoners" from its jails in exchange for one captured soldier, freeze construction projects to please the international community and try to launch peace talks with its neighbors.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has to try his best to work out this thorny issues, as Israel is awaiting Hamas' answer to Netanyahu's offer on the prisoners swap and Israel's security forces are closely monitoring events in the West Bank, where some settlers are extremely frustrated by the construction freeze even if it is only temporary and partial.

Amid internal and external pressures, Netanyahu has led protracted talks with his cabinet members in a bid to reach agreements on these and other burning issues that will please the politicians, the public and the club of nations.

DIVIDED NATION

When Netanyahu won the general elections 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 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 compromises for peace.

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 freeze on building starts in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Similarly, some members of Netanyahu's cabinet and coalition remain staunchly against the likely deal that will see the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit 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 return home, many oppose the idea of releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange.

Some members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, went 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 indicated that just 52 percent of the population favors the return of prisoners of war at any cost.

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

The same poll, conducted by the Truman Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, showed that 49 percent of the Israeli public support the settlement freeze and 42 percent oppose it.

EXTERNAL PRESSURES

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, namely the United Nations, European Union and Russia, are pushing Israel to bend as much as possible to allow the Palestinians to resume peace talks after a one-year 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 at its best and that Israel is concerned that it could be further isolated internationally if it turns a deaf ear to the voice of its most important ally. 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, noted on Tuesday that Netanyahu is actually performing quite a good balancing act.

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

He added that it is truce that the Americans are turning a blind eye to 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, it does not apply to Jerusalem and will only be in place for 10 months.

As for the prisoner deal, Shalom said that although "there is intense pressure," Netanyahu is taking it in his stride. The premier has moved in the direction of an agreement, all that has to be settled are the final specifics, he added.

"LACK OF DECISIVENESS"

In light of the current lack of tangible progress, former dovish lawmaker and political scientist Naomi Hazan argued that the fault lies with Netanyahu rather than the pressures he faces.

"I don't know what his policies are," said Hazan, adding that two lobby groups proposing diametrically contrary views does not mean that a leader should not have opinions and policies of his own.

"This is not about the stability of the coalition versus the decision-making process. This is simply the inability to make decisions," Hazan said, while stressing that leaders must be decisive no matter what they face.

However, Shalom argued that one cannot simply make decisions impulsively or hastily. On the Shalit front, there are all sorts of interests at play, including Germany, the United States, the Israeli public, voters and more.

"You need to know how to maneuver between them. Something he is doing quite well," Shalom said of Netanyahu.

Source: Xinhua
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