"I use this forum today to say, President Abbas, meet me, and let's talk peace. We all have our grievances. We all have our, you know, our questions and things that we want answered. But the most important thing is to get together, sit down in a room and begin to negotiate peace. You cannot resolve a conflict, you cannot successfully complete a peace negotiation if you don't start it. And I say let's start it right now, today, tomorrow, in Jerusalem, in Ramallah or anywhere else. I'm prepared to go to a warm city like New York or a cool city anywhere. Let's get on with the business of talking peace and concluding the peace agreement."
Netanyahu also told the Council on Foreign Relations, according to Haaretz, that "if direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority begin, it would be possible to reach a peace deal within a year" and that "he did not return to the post of prime minister in order to do nothing" and that he was willing to make unprecedented concessions.
Also yesterday, Obama's first interview with an Israeli news outlet aired on Israel's Channel 2, and tried to convince the Israeli public of three things: first, that his actions as President prove that suspicions of his lack of commitment to Israel's security are unfounded; second, that it's in Israel's vital interest to take advantage of a narrow window for peace now, while they still have credible moderate Palestinian leaders to work with; and third, that Netanyahu recognizes that opportunity and is well positioned to take advantage of it:
Q Is a peace agreement, in your opinion, it can be reached in the first term of your presidency?(It might be noted that Obama's expression of confidence in Netanyahu is a bit soft - it's based on Netanyhu being "well positioned" and on Obama's "impression" of Netanyahu's motivation rather than in an expression of trust or personal knowledge of that motivation.)
THE PRESIDENT: I think so. I had an excellent meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. And I think that he is somebody who understands that we’ve got a fairly narrow window of opportunity. On the Palestinian side, moderates like Abu Mazen and Fayyad are, I think, willing to make the concessions and engage in negotiations that can result in peace. But their time frame in power may be limited if they aren’t able to deliver for their people.
There’s a constant contest between moderates and rejectionists within the Arab world. And then there’s the demographic challenges that Israel is going to be facing if it wants to remain not only a Jewish state but a democratic state. So you look at all these pressures and you say to yourself, we probably won’t have a better opportunity than we have right now. And that has to be seized. Now, it’s going to be wrenching. It’s going to be difficult.
Q Do you believe Benjamin Netanyahu is the right man? Do you believe that he can bring peace?
THE PRESIDENT: I think that not only is Prime Minister Netanyahu a smart and savvy politician, but the fact that he is not perceived as a dove in some ways can be helpful in the sense that any successful peace will have to include the hawks and the doves, on both sides, and in the same way that Richard Nixon here in the United States was able to go to China because he had very strong anti-communist credentials, I think Prime Minister Netanyahu may be very well positioned to bring this about.
And in our conversations yesterday, I had the impression that Prime Minister Netanyahu isn’t interested in just occupying a space, a position, but he’s interested in being a statesman and putting his country on a more secure track.
So I hope that opportunity is seized. But ultimately, one of the things you learn very quickly, whether you’re President or a Prime Minister, is that your power derives from the people. And it goes back to your first question -- the Israeli people are going to have to overcome legitimate skepticism, more than legitimate fears, in order to get a change that I think will secure Israel for another 60 years.
Also working to plant the meme that Netanyahu is ready to 'go to China' is Ehud Barak:
Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party insisted, however, that there was more to the White House meeting than published. He said Netanyahu had shown Obama that he was serious and prepared to act regarding the peace process. That was the reason for the Labour Party to stay in the coalition, he said.But then again,
Barak has been criticized internally for serving as a "fig leaf" in Netanyahu's otherwise right-wing coalition, despite the absence of a meaningful peace process.Militating against any progress, Netanyahu is suggesting that he won't renew the settlement freeze, and Abbas is insisting that he won't meet directly until there's a total freeze on all settlements, including in Jerusalem. To avoid a breakdown in September, when the freeze expires, it would seem that Netanyahu would have to open up a chink enabling Abbas to enter direct talks without losing face, then use th,e start of direct talks to justify some kind of provisional freeze extension -- perhaps month-to-month, contingent on progress in the talks?.
UPDATE: WSJ coverage of Netanyahu's CFR remarks indicate that he is deliberately channeling Sadat - along with Begin and Rabin:
"Remember that moment when Sadat came to Jerusalem," Mr. Netanyahu told an overflow crowd gathered at the council's headquarters on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "Remember that just a few years earlier Israel and Egypt fought a terrible war. People dismissed Begin, and people dismissed Sadat. I intend to confound the critics and the skeptics."Perhaps Netanyahu is also echoing those who have speculated about, or called for, a "Netanyahu 2.0," as David Remnick put it, who will take risks for peace. Compare Netanyahu' language above with that of Haaretz columnist Carlo Strenger, who wrote this past March of Netanyahu's Fateful Midlife Crisis:
He compared himself to Mr. Rabin who, he reminded the audience, returned to a second stint as prime minister and concluded a historic peace deal. Mr. Netanyahu is similarly serving as premier for the second time. "When you get to be my advanced age you don't come back to spend time in office," the 60-year-old Mr. Netanyahu said. "You come back to do something. I'm prepared to do something. ...I'm prepared to take political risks."
Netanyahu is coming toward the end of his midlife. Presumably he knows that his place in history will be carved in stone by the present term. He may not get another chance to be prime minister, even in Israel's unfortunately very static political landscape. Hence he faces the one big question: will he continue his pattern of basically stalling, or will he muster the courage for a bold move?Though who knows, maybe the columnists took their cues from Netanyahu rather than vice versa. Perhaps this rhetoric of a second and last chance is not new to him.
Some people, under the shadow of mortality, undergo transformation. This is what happened to Begin, Rabin and Sharon, who transformed late in life, because they realized that they would not live forever, and that what they would not do now, would never be done. They heeded the call of history.
UPDATE 7/12: Netanyahu's rhetoric of self-transformation does indeed closely echo similar promises he made in his first term. Haaretz's Akiva Eldar traces the echoes -- and argues that Netanyahu is no likelier to surprise the world this time around than last.