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How Will We Know If Netanyahu Is Serious About Peace?

The other shoe has now dropped in the current round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In place of the partial freeze set to expire by the end of this month, Prime Minister Netanyahu intends to adopt more limited restraints on construction in the West Bank. Ha’aretz reports that Netanyahu will be going to Sharm El Sheik tomorrow with a proposal identical to one negotiated between his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and the Bush administration: no construction in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem; construction in isolated settlements only in built-up areas; and construction in the large settlement blocs near, as well as within, existing perimeters. (This last provision turned out to permit thousands of new housing units in Ma’aleh Adumim, Beitar Ilit, Modi’in Ilit, and Gush Etzion.)

While Netanyahu seems to be gambling that the Palestinians won’t respond to this “back to the future” proposal by pulling out of the talks, the basis for his optimism is unclear. In the wake of the Obama administration’s call early in 2009 for a complete freeze, the Israeli government eventually adopted the partial freeze now set to expire in less than three weeks. It took nearly a year of negotiations brokered by George Mitchell and Tony Blair before the Palestinians were willing to join face-to-face talks on that basis. The Palestinians have repeatedly said that they can accept nothing less, and that if the Israelis retrench further, Abbas and his team will quit the talks. At this point, there’s no reason not to take them at their word. After all, they were more reluctant than were the Israelis to return to direct talks in the first place.

So what’s the way forward? In recent months, Israeli officials have indicated privately their hope that if the Palestinians receive concessions in other areas—such as checkpoints and other restrictive security measures—that improve daily life on the West Bank, the freeze issue can be sidestepped. No doubt they will explore the viability of such an approach behind the scenes.

The other possibility is a somewhat grander bargain. At the cabinet meeting preceding the latest announcement, Netanyahu reportedly remarked, “We are saying that the solution is two states for two peoples. To my regret, I am still not hearing the phrase ‘two states for two peoples’ from the Palestinians. I am hearing them say ‘two states,’ but I am not hearing them recognize two states for two peoples.” This raises an intriguing possibility. Suppose the Prime Minister were to challenge President Abbas: “You want a wider freeze? Well, there’s something I’d like from you—namely, a recognition of the ‘two states for two peoples’ principle as the basis for further negotiations. Your need and my need rise or fall together.”

The objections to this strategy are obvious. First, the Palestinians might well reject it. True, but so what? If they did, Israel at least would be on the record as having shown flexibility on a matter of core concern. Second, whatever its fate, any offer along those lines might well spark an Israeli cabinet crisis. It probably would. But at some point Netanyahu will have to acknowledge that if he truly wants peace, he’ll need a different coalition—namely, the one that should have formed two years ago. Otherwise put: The decision that the current coalition must be preserved at all costs would represent the clearest possible evidence that this round of negotiations isn’t serious.

Well, speaking as an American Jew and as a sincere friend of Israel, I hope it is serious. If the negotiations end without result, I want it to be clear to the United States (and to those portions of the world that have kept an open mind) that the failure was not Israel’s fault. “A decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind” was more than a throwaway phrase in 1776, and it still is.