The new Israeli government led by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has raised many conflicting feelings among those concerned about the fate of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Will Netanyahu scuttle the little progress that was made under his predecessor Olmert, or will he engage the Palestinians anew? Questions about whether he will resume negotiations with Syria, how he will tackles Iran's nuclear threat, and if he will get along with President Obama remain unanswered. Yet given the right political environment created by the Obama administration and supported by the leading Arab states and the Palestinians, Netanyahu has the potential to advance the peace negotiations significantly, and may end up surprising everyone in the process.
On the positive side, those who know him well suggest that Netanyahu has matured considerably since he was first prime minister (1996-1999). He is well aware that he may never be given another opportunity as prime minister and that he now stands before an historic crossroad. Netanyahu understands the requirements for peace from being at the negotiating table many times before. He appreciates the Israeli public sentiments and is certainly not oblivious to what the Obama administration expects from any Israeli prime minister at this juncture in a region laden with multiple crises. Moreover, the eyes of the international community are fixed on him and he is only too aware of the burden he has just assumed and the limited time he has to demonstrate sound policies. Netanyahu has said he wants peace with security for his country. He argues for strengthening the Palestinian economy and engaging in the peace process, while not excluding making progress on the Syrian front. Iran still poses the largest security threat to Israel, and Netanyahu insists that it must be neutralized.
There is nothing from his tough campaign rhetoric that precludes the establishment of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. While the appointment of the right-wing Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister may have signaled to many a shift away from any peacemaking efforts, it is likely that Netanyahu will use Lieberman strategically for his tough rhetoric to satisfy the more hawkish Israeli constituency. When it comes down to the bargaining table though, once Netanyahu feels he has an honest shot at peace with security he will not let Lieberman get in his way. Persuading Labor to join his coalition government and Ehud Barak as his Defense Minister also shifts the balance of power toward moderation. His coalition may well signal that the future peace process will be anchored in tight security arrangements, and that he and Barak can offer the toughness and leverage needed to secure such a peace. Netanyahu and Barak are capable of negotiating simultaneously with both Syria and the Palestinians. Though the peace negotiations with the Palestinians will be painstaking and take much longer to conclude, a steady progress can still be made aggressively while pursuing the Syrian track.
Alternatively, left to his own ideological convictions and without American pressure, Netanyahu can easily retreat back to his old ways. Palestinian disunity and internal struggle within the Arab states will make finding a partner for peace extremely difficult. He will likely expand the settlements, respond harshly to Hamas' violent provocations, and focus exclusively on Iranian threats while relegating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the back burner. He might even ignore Syria's overtures for peace, especially because Damascus is not in a position to regain the Golan by force. It is possible Netanyahu will only attempt to pay lip service to the Obama's political agenda in the Middle East, and will cooperate only on matters of national security.
These are the two sides to Netanyahu, though they are not necessarily contradictory. He can lean either direction depending on the level, intensity and consistency of the American involvement not only in trying to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian peace but engaging all other regional players in conflict resolution. To enlist Netanyahu as a partner for peace, President Obama must be specific and clear about what must and can be done to advance the peace process while addressing Israel's main national security concerns, starting with Iran.
The Obama administration needs to heavily cooperate with Israel over Iran's nuclear program, and must demonstrate greater sensitivity to Israel's concerns over this existential threat. Whereas a diplomatic course with Tehran must be fully explored by the US, it must commence immediately so that any possible resolution to the nuclear impasse can be found within 2009, a timeframe that is considered safe before Israel contemplates taking matters into its own hands.
While President Obama must support Netanyahu's plan to build a strong economic base for the Palestinians, he must at the same time insist that a political progress is also being made especially in the West Bank. In that connection, George Mitchell and the Obama administration must be clear with Netanyahu that all illegal outposts are dismantled and a temporary freeze on all settlement activity is enforced. These actions have almost no security implications for Israel, but they create conditions that must exist for the Palestinians and Arab states to take the negotiations seriously.
As Mr. Obama recently embraced the Arab Peace Initiative when he met with the Saudi King Abdullah in London, he must now lean heavily on the leading Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria as well (now that Washington and Damascus are talking) to exert whatever pressure necessary on Hamas to moderate and join the political process. They must resolve now to rein in Hamas and establish a Palestinian unity government with the Palestinian Authority that can speak in one voice. Moreover, the Obama administration must take every measure necessary to prevent future smuggling of weapons to Gaza. Otherwise, as long as Hamas has weapons and continues to violently resist Israel's existence, it will provide Netanyahu with a valid excuse to freeze the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
President Obama must also openly call on Netanyahu to put the Israeli-Syrian negotiations on the fast track and be prepared to become directly involved in the process. By engaging Syria, the Obama administration can re-contextualize the peace process and give it the comprehensiveness that has been lacking. Peace between Israel and Syria is within reach and could have broad regional security implications serving both the United States' as well as Israel's national security interests. Moreover, without Israeli-Syrian rapprochement, the task of dealing with Iran will be simply insurmountable.
To be sure, Netanyahu knows that this is his second and likely final chance to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process, but he is not prepared to undermine Israel's legitimate national security concerns for the sake of claiming the peace. As long as President Obama discerns those genuine national security issues and addresses them effectively with Netanyahu, he may find the new Israeli Prime Minister a willing partner for sustainable peace.