x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

World waits for Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu's major policy address today will attempt to ease mutual tensions over the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

TEL AVIV // It is slated to be the most important speech of Benjamin Netanyahu's current premiership. In the face of a threatening collision with the US on the achievement of Palestinian statehood, senior Israeli officials have pledged that the prime minister's major policy address today would attempt to ease mutual tensions over the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

But many commentators question whether Mr Netanyahu, who came to power for the second time in March, would be willing to sufficiently compromise to satisfy the administration of Barack Obama, the US president. Since Mr Netanyahu announced last Sunday his intention to deliver the address, the event has spurred speculation on whether he will reverse his opposition to Palestinian statehood and agree to curtail the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians want the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, to form their future state and they claim Israel's growing settlements are the biggest obstacle. Mr Obama, in what is viewed as the toughest US line against Israeli settlements in decades, has repeatedly urged Mr Netanyahu's government to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state and freeze the construction of new homes in occupied territory.

So far, the Israeli premier has rejected both demands, prompting an unusual clash with the US. Mr Netanyahu says a pullout from the West Bank would prompt attacks on Israel from the territory. However, Mr Netanyahu, whose previous premiership in 1996-1999 was marred by poor relations with the US, is expected to try to make concessions in his speech. While he is unlikely to explicitly say he backs the establishment of a Palestinian state, Israeli media have speculated he will voice support for the 2003 US-backed "Road Map" plan, which previous Israeli governments have accepted and which aims for a two-state accord.

However, it also calls on Israel to halt settlement expansion. Still, Israeli officials are now insisting the previous governments only agreed to the plan and to the 2005 Gaza withdrawal after reaching an unwritten understanding with the US that settlement growth in the West Bank would continue. Those claims have been rejected by Obama administration officials, including Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state. Today, one possibility is that Mr Netanyahu will pledge that Israel will dismantle smaller and more isolated outposts while at the same time the state will continue to build to accommodate growing families in the larger settlement blocs it plans to keep under any peace pact.

Some commentators have described Mr Netanyahu's speech as a bid to find a middle ground between the competing pressures of the US and those of his predominantly right-wing governing coalition - any moderation in the premier's hawkish position promises to draw resistance even from his closest political allies. Benny Begin, a powerful Likud member, has cautioned Mr Netanyahu to resist US demands on supporting Palestinian statehood.

In 1997, Mr Begin quit the Likud leader's first government in protest after Mr Netanyahu handed over part of the West Bank city of Hebron to the Palestinians. His resignation helped spur Mr Netanyahu's ouster by his fractious right-wing coalition two years later. Mr Begin, a minister in the current cabinet who is understood to be a close confidante of the premier, said last week: "If the only solution is two states for two peoples, then there is no solution."