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Concessions unlikely as Netanyahu heads to US

In two years in power, Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu has tip-toed between US demands to make concessions to advance peace with the Palestinians and pressure from his hardline coalition to stand firm

AFP , Wednesday 18 May 2011
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in Jerusalem, Monday, (AP).
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The prime minister will likely take a similar approach as he heads to the United States on Thursday for a pivotal trip that is expected to see him and US President Barack Obama outline their visions for an eventual peace deal.

The highlight of the visit is his much-anticipated May 24 policy speech to Congress in Washington. But analysts cautioned against expecting far-reaching concessions from the Israeli leader.

Instead, Netanyahu will likely try to find a balance between pressure from Obama and the expectations of his hawkish government partners, who oppose concessions to the Palestinians.

And he is certainly not expected to offer terms sufficient to entice the Palestinians back to the negotiating table or persuade them to abandon attempts to seek United Nations recognition for a Palestinian state in September.

Any chance that Netanyahu could have offered something more was scuppered by a surprise unity deal between Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah party and the rival Islamist Hamas, said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on Israel-US relations at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

"The original plan was to come up with some kind of an initiative" to restart direct peace negotiations and head off the Palestinian plan to go to the United Nations, he said.

"The only way to have negotiations would have been some Israeli concession that the United States could have presented to the Palestinians as a change in the Israeliposition," he said.

"Now with this (Fatah-Hamas) agreement, things have changed."

Israel has said it can't talk peace with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by Israel, Washington and Brussels, and which calls for Israel's destruction.

Instead, Netanyahu will likely focus his efforts on convincing Obama that Israel is not to blame for the breakdown in the peace process and to oppose the Palestinians' unilateral UN bid.

"He will try to do it by a combination of possible ambiguous promises of an Israeli commitment to a viable peace process and negotiations," said Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University.

This would be "coupled with an attempt to depict what's going on in Palestinian politics as sanctioning a terrorist wing which identified with (Osama) bin Laden," he said, referring to comments from Hamas condemning the killing of the Al-Qaeda leader.

It will be a delicate dance for Netanyahu, who has had frosty relations with Obama.

Netanyahu will depart for his six-day trip just hours after Obama is expected to lay out his own views on the Middle East in a speech at the State Department.

They will meet the following day in the White House and are also both scheduled to deliver speeches to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the top pro-Israeli lobby.

Speaking to Israel's parliament on Monday, Netanyahu gave at least an inkling of the approach he will take.

In laying out his demands for an eventual peace deal, Netanyahu insisted that large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank must "remain inside the borders of the State of Israel."

The Israeli media interpreted this as sign he would be willing to evacuate other, isolated settlements.

But, he also ruled out any talks with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

"Those who wish to obliterate us are no partners for peace. A Palestinian government with half its members declaring daily that they plan to annihilate the Jewish state is not a partner for peace," he said.

Ben Caspit, a leading commentator with the Maariv daily, said Netanyahu was trying to please everyone, calling the speech 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," he said.

Others said Netanyahu's concessions, while significant in the context of local politics, were too nuanced to satisfy the international community.

"No European or American leader would swoon with excitement on hearing Netanyahu's willingness to give up isolated settlements. They probably wouldn't even believe him," wrote Yossi Verter in the liberal Haaretz daily.

Even Netanyahu confidantes said some manoeuvring could be expected from the premier this trip, but ultimately he would stand firm.

"The prime minister is navigating a complicated situation," Transport Minister Yisrael Katz of Netanyahu's Likud party told public radio. "He has a mandate, he has a vision and he won't betray that."
















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