JERUSALEM – JERUSALEM (AP) — Hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the security credentials and the political strength to pull off a peace deal with Palestinians now that the U.S. has brokered a new start to direct talks.
The big question is: Does he have the will?
Netanyahu heads to Washington on Sept. 1 for the launch of the first direct negotiations in nearly two years with the Palestinians. The White House hopes to forge a deal that has eluded its predecessors within a year — a formidable challenge.
Though Netanyahu has built his political career in part as an outspoken critic of peace moves by past Israeli leaders, he has shown surprising pragmatism in dealing with the moderate Palestinian leadership of the West Bank.
Netanyahu has made a series of concessions under heavy U.S. pressure — an indication that he is both pragmatic and susceptible to arm-twisting from Israel's closest and most important ally.
Shortly after his re-election a year ago, the prime minister removed dozens of military checkpoints in the West Bank. The lifting of the travel restrictions, which Israel said were a security measure during a previous decade of violence, helped breathe life into what has become a miniature economic boom in the Palestinian territory.
Last year, Netanyahu endorsed the concept of a Palestinian state, and later imposed a 10-month slowdown on construction of new homes in West Bank Jewish settlements. Earlier this year, he informally imposed a similar, albeit undeclared, freeze on new Jewish housing developments in east Jerusalem. Such moves would have been unthinkable for him a few years ago.
Still there are enormous obstacles to overcome before any deal can be reached.
Netanyahu says he will not give up east Jerusalem and has not talked about the possibility of a broad withdrawal from the West Bank, where more than 200,000 Jewish settlers live among about 2.4 million Palestinians and Israel maintains military control. Palestinians claim all the West Bank and east Jerusalem as well as Gaza — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — for their future state. The international community backs the Palestinian demand.
This has made the Palestinians extremely leery about speaking to the Israeli leader.
Another problem is the roughly 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are deeply divided. They have different governments. And Netanyahu's partner for talks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, is weak and only represents about half the Palestinians in the territories.
Nevertheless, there is some reason for hope that President Barack Obama's initiative will fare better than the doomed attempts of past American leaders.
In dealing with the Israeli public, Netanyahu's credibility as a security hawk and secure political standing could enable him to follow in the footsteps of former Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, two other right-wing icons who ultimately made sweeping gestures for peace.
Begin reached the 1979 historic peace accord with Egypt, requiring a full withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, while Sharon withdrew all Israeli troops and settlements from the Gaza Strip five years ago.
Netanyahu's actions have not always matched his tough-talking rhetoric. In his previous term as prime minister in the 1990s, he withdrew Israeli forces from Hebron and handed over additional control of the West Bank to Palestinians.
Equally significant, his coalition government, a grouping dominated by a mix of nationalistic and hard-line religious parties, has remained solidly intact despite unhappiness with some of Netanyahu's moves.
Without any serious opposition, Netanyahu has great freedom in conducting negotiations. And if any hard-line coalition partners were to break away, Netanyahu could turn to the moderate opposition to remain in power.
For now, it remains unclear whether Netanyahu is ready to make bold steps toward peace.
One reason for skepticism is his endorsement of Palestinian independence last year included so many caveats that the Palestinians said it was insincere. Likewise, the limited settlement freeze included several loopholes that allowed construction of thousands of apartments to proceed.
A former army commando and the son of a renowned hawkish Zionist historian who still wields heavy influence over him, Netanyahu has led the fight against previous peace initiatives over the past two decades. His opposition has been rooted in both security grounds and an ideology stressing the Jewish people's connection to the Holy Land.
Since winning election last year, Netanyahu has given few signs that he is willing to make the tough concessions demanded by the Palestinians and the international community: a withdrawal from occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians, shared sovereignty of the holy city of Jerusalem and a solution for the millions of Palestinians who became refugees as a result of Israel's creation in 1948. The Palestinians view him with deep suspicion.
To lure Netanyahu to the negotiating table, the White House had to agree to his demands that there be no preconditions and that he not be bound to pledges made by more dovish Israeli leaders in the past. In accepting the White House's invitation, Netanyahu said protecting Israel's security interests would be his foremost concern.
The Palestinians joined the talks only after the international Quartet of Mideast mediators issued an accompanying statement Friday calling for an agreement "that ends the occupation which began in 1967."
A senior Palestinian official said the Palestinians had received assurances from the U.S. that it will remain heavily involved and push for a solution based on the 1967 borders. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing sensitive diplomatic contacts with Washington.
Abbas, already weakened by the Hamas militant group's takeover of Gaza three years ago, fears a failed peace process could further damage his standing in his West Bank headquarters. The rival Hamas, which immediately condemned the new peace talks, is a major impediment to any future peace deal.
"These negotiations will not succeed and have no chance of succeeding," warned Hani Masri, a prominent Palestinian political analyst. "What they will do is weaken the Palestinian leadership and its popularity and deepen the inner Palestinian conflict."
Jerusalem News Editor Josef Federman has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 2003.