Thursday, September 22, 2011

Netanyahu is on a roll

Even before President Barack Obama delivered a speech bidding the leaders gathered at the U.N. General Assembly to see the world through Israeli eyes, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in excellent spirits. He wandered into the rear of the Boeing 767 El Al outfitted to carry the head of Israel's government and confidentially informed the assembled reporters that he had slept soundly for seven hours, but, really, that was about it.

"I have nothing to give," Netanyahu said.

"You are expected to give territory," a reporter replied. Laughter on both sides of the aisle. (See photos in "Inside the West Bank Settlements.")

A few hours later, having landed in New York and heard Obama's speech, the Israeli delegation was feeling even better. A senior Netanyahu aide said the Palestinian delegation was so taken aback by Obama's speech that a senior aide to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas had broached a new possibility: Stop settlement construction for three months, and perhaps direct negotiations can resume.

The specific overture could not be confirmed, but disappointment was clearly the dominant Palestinian reaction to Obama's remarks. "It was predictably depressing to hear the President laud the newfound freedom of the peoples of South Sudan, Cote d'Ivoire, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, while telling the Palestinians that their freedom depended on their jumping through hoops held up by their Israeli occupiers and their American friends," said longtime Palestinian adviser Rashid Khalidi, of Columbia University.

Much has been made of Obama's promise to use U.S. veto power in the Security Council to block a Palestinian bid for full U.N. membership. Abbas plans to submit such an application on Friday, when he makes his own speech to the General Assembly, in hopes that U.N. recognition of Palestinian sovereignty will level the playing field in negotiations to end Israel's 44-year occupation.(See photos of Palestinian-Israeli clash in the West Bank.)

But the focus of U.S. and Israeli diplomatic warfare this week has been concentrated on ensuring the Palestinians don't muster the nine affirmative votes needed to pass the 15-member body and trigger a U.S. veto. Palestinian Authority foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki claimed six yes votes as of Wednesday, and predicted the final three will come on line by the time Abbas speaks on Friday.

A key swing vote is held by Gabon, the west-central African nation of just 1.5 million people. Al-Maliki said the Gabonese were coming the Palestinians' way, but Netanyahu was to meet with President Ali-Ben Bongo Ondimba on Wednesday afternoon, having seen the president of Colombia in the morning. Netanyahu's schedule also called for lobbying the leaders of Greece and Portugal on Thursday. His Assembly address is also on Friday, a couple of hours after Abbas speaks.

Netanyahu's Wednesday docket included a meeting with Obama. The allies convened after the President's speech, first in front of cameras, then behind closed doors. But even between the expressions of mutual regard and fellow feeling, the lobbying continued.

"I think the Palestinians want to achieve a state through the international community, but they are not prepared yet to give peace to Israel in return," Netanyahu said, glancing at Obama. "And my hope is there will are other leaders — responsible leaders — in the world who will heed your call, and oppose this effort to shortcut peace negotiations and in fact avoid them."

"Now I know that these leaders are under enormous pressure," Netanyahu added, "and I know from personal experience that the automatic majority is against Israel. But..." But after weeks of distressing diplomatic developments for the Jewish State — alliances in Turkey and Egypt on the rocks, momentum building for the Palestinian statehood bid — Israel at least appeared to be having a good day. Netanyahu was scheduled to talk a bit more about it at a mid-afternoon press briefing, but it aides said it was cancelled to make room for another meeting.

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