Netanyahu : No way to 'impose' Middle East peace

WASHINGTON, Stephen Collinson- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday poured cold water on the notion of any dramatic new US peace plan, as speculation mounted over Washington's next move in the Middle East impasse.
Netanyahu, in an interview with ABC television, argued that Israelis and Palestinians would have to negotiate towards a final settlement, not work off a new document defining the eventual parameters for a Palestinian state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured on 7th April
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured on 7th April
"I don't believe anyone will seriously think that you can impose peace. Peace has to come from the parties sitting down with each other, resolving their differences," said Netanyahu.
"You can't end the peace negotiation unless you begin it. I am for beginning it right now," said the Israeli leader, who has been involved in a public test of wills over Jewish settlements in Jerusalem with US President Barack Obama.
Washington's foreign policy echo chamber has been reverberating with speculation that the Obama White House could try to blow open the deadlock between Israelis and Palestinians with its own new peace plan.
There is debate over whether apparently carefully placed leaks on this theme in The Washington Post and The New York Times this month augur a new approach, are meant to pressure Israel, or are just a sign of US impatience.
What is clear however, is that prospects for any fresh US strategy are darkened by hostility between the two sides, the American spat with the Israeli government and splits in Palestinian politics.
Arab leaders have ruled out new peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in the absence of a full settlement freeze in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, a notion the Netanyahu government has rejected.
Obama acknowledged last week that the United States could not "impose solutions unless the participants in these conflicts are willing to break out of the old patterns of antagonism."
"Sometimes, we'll take one step forward and two steps back and there will be frustrations."
But some observers think that focusing the parties on "big issues" could defuse current rows over interim but emotive questions, like Israeli settlements.
The president has waged a public spat with Netanyahu over Jewish settlements, been hampered by Palestinian political divides and failed to persuade Arab states to offer Israel incentives.
All this is overshadowed by Iran and Obama's efforts to frame new international sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program, which Israel views as a threat to its very existence.
Any new US plan would be designed to bypass current disputes in pursuit of final agreement.
For instance, if the status of Jerusalem -- claimed partly or entirely by both sides as a future capital -- can be solved, irritants like settlement building in the city may no longer occur.
The administration says it has made no decisions on where to go next, but pledges not to surprise the main players.
But an Obama plan would likely mirror suggestions laid down by ex-president Bill Clinton before he left office in 2001.
The "Clinton parameters" stipulate Palestinian sovereignty over Gaza and most of the West Bank, a solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees, an undivided Jerusalem and security guarantees for both sides.
But unveiling a new US plan would involve significant risk.
"I am not sure that now is the right moment for the president to do that, since when you put something out there, you are stuck with it," said Steven Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Cook suggested that a renewed effort to get Israelis and Palestinians to take part in "proximity talks" might be more of a low-risk option, and could provide cover for more significant covert contacts between the parties.
If both sides rejected a plan, or ensured its demise through bickering and mistrust, the president will have wasted his best diplomatic shot.
The president's intervention may also be more effective later, when a deal needs to be closed.
Grand plans for Middle East peace also have a habit of coming unstuck, as did the "road-map" sponsored by the Middle East diplomatic quartet.
Still, there are those who believe a new US plan does have a chance -- if it is properly supported.
"It is something that has to be really well prepared. You have to have gamed out phases two, three and four if you are doing something like that," said Daniel Levy, a former senior Israeli policy advisor, now with the New America Foundation.

Tuesday, April 20th 2010
Stephen Collinson

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