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Dr. Josef Olmert

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Flotilla In, Negotiations Out?

Posted: 07/05/11 03:15 PM ET

Many Israelis are rubbing their eyes with disbelief as an unprecedented coalition, composed of Greece, Turkey, The United States, UN, the Quartet, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA), joined forces in order to thwart the provocative flotilla to Hamas-controlled Gaza. In Israel, the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is praised for what is perceived as a diplomatic victory, and in the best tradition of Israeli politics, the various coalition partners vie for the credit. Netanyahu is the big victor, and now it is left to see if he will react as a politician or as a statesman. The former likes to remind his constituency that "I told you so," whereas the latter should capitalize on the tactical achievement in order to win a lasting strategic consequence, and in this case it is the resumption of negotiations with the PA, designed to lead to a breakthrough ahead of what can be a setback, if the PA will make good on its plan to abandon talks with Israel and go instead to the UN in order to score a meaningless diplomatic victory by having the General Assembly calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines.

Netanyahu has been in a celebratory mood ever since he came back from the U.S., following the speech to the Congress and the public opinion polls showing a large measure of American public support to Israeli positions. The temptation for him to stick to his guns is very high, considering the success regarding the flotilla. But then, he has to remember, and preferably very soon, that the diplomatic effort about the flotilla proved successful exactly because large segments of the international community, while rejecting any support for Hamas, still eagerly await a meaningful progress between Israel and the PA. The line in the sand was drawn between those who want a negotiated, peaceful solution, like the PA and Israel, and those who reject it like Hamas.

Netanyahu, therefore, should be very careful not to waste the goodwill that was shown towards Israel by refraining from any move towards the PA. Should he choose to do so, he will confront -- and quickly -- a worldwide coalition putting pressure on him. He has a major asset on his hands, that if properly and sincerely used could serve Israel very well. This is the ability to go back to the Israeli public and tell them that Israel is not isolated in the international community, not everyone is against us, hence an Israeli initiative could garner at least some support. This is a significant point, as any student of Israeli politics knows, that no government there, surely not a nationalist one, can be seen as ready to make concessions when being totally isolated and under pressure. Well, much to the chagrin of the organizers of the flotilla and some agitated right-wingers in Israel, the alleged isolation of Israel is no more than a propaganda ploy of its enemies, designed to lead to deligitimization of the state. The left-wing Islamic coalition behind the failed flotilla could not have given a better gift to those who really want to advance towards a peaceful settlement, though this is exactly what they do not want to see happening.

Netanyahu keeps stating that he is eager to start negotiations, so what can he do? He can start with Gestures on the ground in the West Bank, which will reward the PA, particularly what can help the economic situation there, as well as the financial position of the Fayyad government. On top of that, Netanyahu should refer to the borders issue by stating his interpretation of the Obama speech, that on the basis of the 1967 lines, needed corrections having to do with Israel's security concerns and land swaps will have to be taken. Needless to say, that Abbas and Fayyad should reciprocate by keeping Hamas out, accepting the principle, that any agreement should be final and committing themselves to negotiated settlement only, which means no diplomatic gimmicks in the UN.

Netanyahu has the ability to take some unilateral steps of goodwill on the ground, without expecting immediate Palestinian response. Creating a positive atmosphere is having its own advantages, and judging by the experience of the flotilla, Israel can expect in that case some substantial help from important segments of the international community. So, time to move, Bibi.