A minor step in the right direction, though of course, if history is any guide, the settlements will expand while intense “negotiations” commence:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is leaving for Washington tonight, has promised the Obama administration Israel will make several goodwill gestures toward the Palestinian Authority in response to Washington’s demands.
For the first time since Operation Cast Lead, Israel has agreed to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip. Moreover, Netanyahu has agreed to discuss all core issues during the proximity talks, with the condition of reaching final conclusions only in direct talks with the PA.
Netanyahu also agreed to discuss the core issues in the dispute – including borders, refugees, Jerusalem, security arrangements, water and settlements – already during indirect talks, although summations would be made in direct talks with the PA president.
Netanyahu responded to Washington’s demands during his telephone call with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday night. Clinton said on Friday that Netanyahu’s response “was useful and productive, and we’re continuing our discussions with him and his government.”
Netanyahu refused to revoke the building project in Ramat Shlomo or freeze construction in East Jerusalem. He also promised a better oversight system to prevent embarrassing incidents such as the one that triggered the crisis with the U.S. during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit.
Senior officials in Jerusalem said that the prime minister’s gestures include relieving the blockade on Gaza and enabling the UN to transport construction materials to rebuild sewerage systems and a large flour mill, and build 150 apartments in Khan Yunis.
Netanyahu also agreed to release hundreds of Fatah-affiliated prisoners as a gesture to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, in keeping with the view of the defense establishment on the effect this will have on the release of Gilad Shalit.
Netanyahu is scheduled to leave for Washington tonight with Defense Minister Ehud Barak to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington. Opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni and Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau will also attend the convention.
Netanyahu is slated to address the convention tomorrow at 7 P.M. (Israel time), then meet Clinton, who is also to speak at the AIPAC gathering. No meeting has been set yet between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, but Israeli officials believe such a meeting will take place on Tuesday in the White House, and contacts are progressing in this regard.
Israel’s Washington envoy Michael Oren said yesterday that outsiders cannot force peace on the Middle East, and any final settlement will have to be initiated by the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. Oren spoke in an interview with U.S. television station PBS. Oren said Israel was not interested in having the White House present its own peace plan, in view of the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Any attempt by the United States to impose a peace deal would be like “forcing somebody to fall in love,” Oren said.
Asked if Israel wanted Washington to present its own peace plan, Oren said: “No. I think peace has to be made between two people sitting across a table. America can help facilitate that interaction.”