Few in Israel expect big change from Obama Mideast speech

McClatchy NewspapersMay 17, 2011 

JERUSALEM — With President Barack Obama set to speak Thursday about events in the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is setting the stage for his own diplomatic offensive, offering a hint at concessions, but also giving an markedly aggressive description of what Israel is not prepared to do for peace.

Netanyahu said in a speech to the Israeli parliament Monday that Israel would cede "parts of our homeland for true peace," the first time he's ever said publicly that territorial concessions might be possible in an effort to reach a deal with the Palestinians to resolve a 63-year standoff. But the list of what he said Israel wouldn't accept was a lengthy one, including any withdrawal from major West Bank settlements and any agreement that would allow the return to Israel of Palestinian refugees who were forced from their homeland during Israel's independence battle.

Few here saw Netanyahu's presentation as a major change in position. Ben Caspit, an opinion columnist at the newspaper Maariv, called it a "breathtaking circus act" — "The prime minister succeeded in a single impressive pirouette to wink left and fly to the right at the same time" — while a European diplomat suggested that the U.S. wouldn't be "fooled or floored" by Netanyahu's speech.

"He didn't propose anything new or shocking. The position he discussed has been proposed in every peace summit and meeting this decade," said one European diplomat who spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid.

Still, speculation is high here about Obama's speech, which will precede Netanyahu's arrival in Washington by only a few hours, where the prime minister also is scheduled to give a speech on Middle East peace negotiations.

The question is whether the so-called Arab Spring upheaval that's sweeping the region will push the Israelis and the Palestinians to resolve their differences. Many here think all the signs point to "no," something that Obama indicated Tuesday he'd find disappointing.

"It's more vital than ever that both Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table and begin negotiating a process whereby they can create ... two states that are living side by side in peace and security," Obama said at the end of a White House meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan.

Last week, the president's special envoy to the talks, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, resigned. His associates said that Mitchell had come to the realization that serious peace negotiations "were not around the corner" and neither side was ready to engage in productive peace talks.

Israeli officials also seem intent on portraying their Palestinian counterparts as not serious about the talks and that the timing of the Netanyahu visit shows the U.S. agrees.

"Israel is in a strong position. Netanyahu will give a supportive speech and make concessions that are tangible to the United States," said an aide to Netanyahu who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. "The Palestinians will be shown to not be the real partner."

The Israelis say a reconciliation agreement announced last month between the long-estranged Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, is evidence of that.

Fatah, which rules the West Bank, has long allied itself with the West and has steady ties with the White House, but the United States and Israel consider Hamas, which controls Gaza, a terrorist organization.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave a speech last week in which he questioned why Israel should enter into peace talks with a government that includes Hamas. Barak is considered one of the more dovish members in Netanyahu's coalition, and his view bolstered the prime minister's position that Israel could demand that the Palestinians choose between an allied Fatah-Hamas government and peace with Israel.

"Israel feels itself to be in a very strong position. Obama will want to present an allied front," the Netanyahu aide said.

There are those, however, who think that events in the region, including the death of Osama bin Laden and the Arab Spring, may drive the president to rethink long-held U.S. positions.

"The diplomatic community has been reaching out to the new Arab world, and the Americans will do the same. Obama cannot afford to isolate the Palestinians," a European diplomat said.

On Tuesday, Israel's largest Hebrew-language paper, Yediot Ahronot, reported seeing a copy of Obama's speech notes. The paper claimed that the president will discourage Palestinian efforts to seek state recognition through a U.N. vote, but will support a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders declared by the U.N.

"That report is completely false," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, adding that the White House hasn't shared a draft of the speech with anyone outside the administration.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy correspondent. Steven Thomma contributed to this article from Washington.)

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