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June 8, 2009 - Vol. 10, Issue 37

Netanyahu Plans New Rhetoric; Israeli Responses to Obama's Speech; Israelis Ready for a Settlement Freeze; Helping Israel Where It Counts; Paying for Settler Violence

Netanyahu Plans New Rhetoric: "Next week I will deliver a major diplomatic speech in which I will present to Israel's citizens our principles for achieving peace and security," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced yesterday.

 

Israeli pundits see the speech as an opportunity for the prime minister to relieve the pressure he feels by repositioning himself as a supporter of - and not an obstacle to - the peace process. Specifically, the speech - to be delivered Sunday at Bar Ilan University - is seen as an answer to President Barack Obama's Cairo address.

 

Yedioth Ahronoth political columnist Shimon Shiffer predicts this morning that Netanyahu will embrace the two-state solution and the Road Map in his speech. Other news outlets report that Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are urging him to do so.

 

Netanyahu is already signaling that he wants a change in tone. "In recent days I have read and heard different quotes that were attributed to me - but that I did not say," Netanyahu remarked yesterday. He may have been responding to a Yedioth Ahronoth article that quoted him saying that "the American pressure will not achieve its goal," and that the "demand to stop construction in the settlements is unfair, and therefore we will not stop building."

 

"Statements to this effect were indeed leaked from the Prime Minister's Bureau in recent days," Ma'ariv reports today. But now it appears Netanyahu is changing course. A senior Netanyahu aide told the paper that Netanyahu "saw the headlines" and is taking corrective action.

 

That said, Ma'ariv reports that Netanyahu's coalition partners had received "soothing signals" from the prime minister that any changes in Israel 's policy will only be rhetorical. "Netanyahu will break left only in the talk," a senior political source told the paper, "not in action." (Haaretz, 6/7/09 ; Yedioth Ahronoth, 6/7 & 6/8/09 ; Ma'ariv, 6/8/09 )

 

Netanyahu Plans New Rhetoric, Part II: The editorial in today's Haaretz offers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advice on the speech he is planning for next week: "When writing his address, Netanyahu should keep in mind the value of maintaining positive relations with the United States and of taking advantage of the political opportunity offered by the Obama initiative. He should therefore accept the road map without resorting to sophistry, renew negotiations over a final-status agreement and declare that settlement construction will be frozen and outposts evacuated."

 

"Faster than expected," the editorial notes, "the prime minister has reached the moment when he must decide between adhering to his outdated political platform and advancing the national interest by achieving a peace deal with the Palestinians and maintaining good relations with the United States. The politicians who are considered Netanyahu's natural partners, both from Likud and the far right, will threaten to remove him from power and warn of a serious internal rift if he says yes to Obama. But Netanyahu must not be alarmed by them. This is his moment to prove that he is a statesman of historic vision, who is capable of going beyond his old positions and taking advantage of opportunities, rather than missing them because of political fears." (Haaretz, 6/8/09 )

 

Israeli Responses to Obama's Speech: It took four hours for the official Israeli reaction to President Barack Obama's Cairo speech to be issued. A statement from the Prime Minister's Office expressed "hope that President Obama's important speech in Cairo will lead to a new period of reconciliation between the Arab and Muslim world, and Israel ."

 

"We share Obama's hope that the American efforts will signal the opening of a new era that will bring about an end to the conflict, and [lead] to pan-Arab recognition of Israel as the Jewish state living in peace and security in the Middle East ," the statement read. " Israel is obligated to peace and will do as much as possible to help expand the circle of peace, while taking into consideration its national interests, the foremost of which is security."

 

The somewhat low-key response was reportedly crafted after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consulted with a series of cabinet members.

 

Behind the scenes Netanyahu was reportedly relieved with the content of the speech. "Obama did not hit Israel on the head with a baseball bat," one aide to the prime minister told Yedioth Ahronoth, who added that one "could hear a sigh of disappointment in some circles who expected Obama to settle scores with Netanyahu."

 

Yedioth Ahronoth columnists Nahum Barnea and Smadar Peri welcomed the president's speech warmly. "One cannot help but admire a president who begins his term with an intensive effort to promote the solution to a problem that has been oppressing Israel since its birth.  In the talk after the speech, Obama made it clear that he was only at the beginning of the road. He is not na├»ve. He knows that it will take time until peace is achieved, if at all. Yesterday, he crossed the starting line."

 

The editorial in Friday's Haaretz called the speech "extraordinary," noting that it "is an essential beginning following years of hostility and alienation between American administrations and Muslims and Arabs. The refined rhetoric of Barack Obama, the frankness and directness with which he unfolded the history of hatred between Islam and the West, and the fashion in which he drew the right paths these two great civilizations must follow in order to foment partnership, have undoubtedly set a new horizon for their relationship. At least that is the hope."

 

The editorial also noted that Israel and the Palestinians must now respond by pushing ahead on their commitments. "The government of Israel , like that of the Palestinians, has no right to ignore this opportunity and place it in the drawer alongside all the other missed opportunities. The price of missing out will not be measured in the quality of relations with Washington , but in human lives." ( Jerusalem Post, 6/4/09 ; Yedioth Ahronoth, 6/5/09 ; Haaretz, 6/5/09 )

 

Israelis Ready for a Settlement Freeze: The Israeli public is ready for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze settlements and dismantle outposts, a poll published Friday by Yedioth Ahronoth suggests.  Moreover, the poll finds that Israelis are dissatisfied with Netanyahu's handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

 

The poll found that by a margin of 52% to 43%, Israelis think their government should freeze settlement construction. 70% want to see settlement outposts evacuated.

 

56% said that Netanyahu should acquiesce to President Barack Obama's demands. 47% expressed dissatisfaction with Netanyahu's handling of Israel's relationship with the United States. Only 34% said they were satisfied.

 

Moreover, the poll suggests that the electorate does not want Netanyahu's far-right coalition partners to bolt if the government freezes settlements.  When asked whether Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party should leave the coalition if a settlement freeze is implemented, a clear majority of Yisrael Beiteinu voters said that they would want the party to stay (60% to 23%).  This indicates that even on the far right there is tolerance for a settlement freeze.

 

Yisrael Beiteinu is the Likud's largest partner in the governing coalition, accounting for about 20% of the government's parliamentary majority. (Yedioth Ahronoth, 6/5/09)

 

Helping Israel Where It Counts: While much is being made of the tensions in the U.S.-Israel relationship in the wake of the Obama administration's unequivocal position on settlements, less attention is being given to President Barack Obama's embrace of Israel's security needs.

 

The administration reiterated its commitment to Israel's security yesterday, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told George Stephanopoulos that Iran could expect massive retaliation from "a battery of nuclear weapons countries" if it launched a nuclear attack on Israel.

 

Alex Fishman, writing in Yedioth Ahronoth on Friday, observed that the Obama administration understands that "Israel will not budge one inch on the peace process unless it is provided with a total sense of security. The perception in Washington, today as well, is that Israel has no clear policy except on matters of security. And therefore, as long as the administration does not provide for Israel's security needs, it has no expectations that Israel will cooperate on the political level."

 

Fishman reports that this idea "appears in the paper prepared by National Security Adviser James Jones a year ago which concerns the establishment of a regional security array for the day after the troops withdraw from Iraq in 2010. Jones recommended the establishment of a multi-branch body, composed of eight central security agencies, the FBI, the CIA, agencies related to the Pentagon, State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, which will address Israel's security needs. The goal: complete coordination. And the practical aspect: senior representatives from each of these agencies will work continuously with an equivalent Israeli body with full transparency and will thus bypass the various security establishment bureaucracies as well as the situation in which one body neutralizes the actions of another."

 

Fishman writes that the first step in this process - conducting a broad survey of Israel's true security needs - is already underway. (Yedioth Ahronoth, 6/5/09; ABC, 6/7/09; Haaretz, 6/7/09)

 

Paying for Settler Violence: Israel's State Attorney announced today that Israel was withdrawing charges against Zeev Braoda, a settler who was charged with shooting and injuring two Palestinians during settler rioting last December. The decision to withdraw the charges followed a court ruling that would have forced prosecutors to disclose classified evidence to defense attorneys.

 

The December riots followed an Israeli law enforcement action to remove settlers who had barricaded themselves illegally in a large building in Hebron. Settlers and right-wing activists responded to the eviction by setting cars and homes ablaze, by breaking windows, and by assaulting Palestinians. This violence was part of a tactic settlers call the "price tag." The tactic tries to exact a high cost for outpost evacuation in order to deter the government from future action.

 

The effort to deter law-enforcement action against settlement outposts continues. Israel Army Radio reports this morning that, following threats against senior officers, the IDF has asked that body guards be provided to two brigade commanders who serve in the West Bank.  One of the officer reportedly received a letter stating: "We know where you live. We will get to both you and your family."

 

In another development related to the December Hebron riots, Israel's Defense Ministry decided to pay NIS 250,000 ($64,000) in compensation to 50 Palestinians whose property was damaged on the day of the riots. The Palestinians will be able to claim these funds in an expedited manner based on the recommendation of Civil Administration chief, General Yoav Mordechai. (Israel Army Radio, 6/8/09; Haaretz, 6/7/09)