The Monitor's View

Time running out for Israel and peace talks

With the push for recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations and with the Middle East in turmoil, time is no longer on the side of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

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In the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it has worked to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s advantage to play for time. It has kept him in power and his conservative coalition government together.

But time is no longer on Mr. Netanyahu’s side. A wave of change is coming in the Middle East and at the United Nations, where the Palestinians are building support for a September bid to win UN recognition of a Palestinian state. Far better for the Israeli prime minister to ride this wave, than to be battered by it.

Palestinians have been buoyed by statehood endorsements from countries that aren’t automatic sympathizers, such as Brazil and Argentina. This week, the Palestinians received a big boost from the International Monetary Fund. The fund released a report saying that the Palestinian Authority – which governs the occupied West Bank – is “now able to conduct the sound economic policies expected of a future well-functioning Palestinian state.”

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It must be remembered that a resolution on statehood would be brought before the General Assembly, where majority rules with no big-power vetoes. It’s not as if the United States could come to the rescue with a veto – though it could certainly twist arms.

Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres traveled abroad this week to lobby against a possible statehood resolution, with Mr. Peres visiting President Obama and the UN, and Netanyahu calling on German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.

Both the US and Germany are Israel’s longtime allies. Yet the Western leaders urged Israel to get back to the negotiating table. Reviving the talks is now “more urgent than ever,” said each leader, using the exact same phrase.

Part of the urgency is the Arab uprising. Israel’s longtime friend and peace partner, Hosni Mubarak, was ousted by democracy revolutionaries in Egypt in February. Demonstrations have taken place in Jordan, another friend, and are intensifying in neighboring Syria, from which Israel won the Golan Heights in the 1967 war.

Netanyahu likes to point out that it’s too early to tell how these revolutions will turn out. “We don’t know if this is a 1989 change in Europe or the 1979 revolution in Iran,” he said in Berlin. But the uncertainty is no reason to delay.

Just the opposite. If democracy spreads in the Middle East, a democratic Israel will want to side with this movement. If militant and fundamentalist Islam spreads in these new democracies, Israel will want to have worked out in advance a negotiated two-state solution with international security guarantees.

A group of former Israeli security and intelligence leaders, as well as other well-known Israelis, recognize that it’s in Israel’s interest to return to negotiations, rather than walk a course to increasing global isolation. These Israelis just released a peace initiative that has much in common with the Arab proposal of 2002.

Their private initiative would make the pre-Mideast war borders of 1967 the starting point, trading Israeli land for security in a deal that would build a Palestine out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with some exceptions for Israeli settlements. It would also divide Jerusalem as the capital of both countries.

Netanyahu objects, because he says this is giving away his bargaining leverage. Yet this was what his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, offered the Palestinians in 2008 before that process foundered. It is also the backbone of an unofficial Israeli-Palestinian agreement in 2003, called the Geneva Accord. And it is the assumed solution in the international community.

Were the Israelis to agree to this starting place, it would be incumbent on the Palestinians to negotiate seriously, and meet Israel’s security needs. A violent flare-up of rocket attacks from Gaza and counterattacks from Israel is a stark reminder of Israel’s real security concerns.

Mr. Obama must again push hard on the negotiation front. Yes, he has a lot on his plate, and he just began his reelection campaign. But now is not the time for his signature ponderous caution. Events are moving quickly, and Netanyahu is swimming against history. His US ally needs to get him up on his board, riding with the wave.

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