Netanyahu in Europe: Hopes for Renewed Peace Talks

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Ian Nicholson / WPA Pool / Getty

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at No. 10 Downing Street

It certainly doesn't qualify as a breakthrough, but after months of deadlock and mutual recrimination, it appears the leaders of Israel and Palestine may be slowly getting closer to restarting peace talks. Word of creeping movement toward possible renewed negotiations arose from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Britain and Germany this week, sparking fragile hope — and guarded optimism.

After meeting with British Premier Gordon Brown on Tuesday, Netanyahu spent Wednesday huddling with U.S. President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, in London. Central to both discussions were European and American efforts to get Netanyahu to agree to a freeze on the construction of West Bank settlements — one of the main conditions Palestine has set for resuming talks with Israel.

Though Netanhyahu is under severe pressure from hard-right partners in his coalition government to concede nothing, his comments in London suggested he might nevertheless consider modifying his hostility to a building freeze. "We are making headway," Netanyahu said ahead of his meeting with Mitchell. "My government has taken steps in both words and deeds to move forward." Later that day, he left for Germany to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel on the last leg of his European jaunt. Though Merkel has always been careful to avoid pressuring Israel in public on the issue, German officials have said the Chancellor will remind Netanyahu during their meeting on Thursday of Berlin's position that all settlement activity in the West Bank be halted and that a final peace agreement be based on a two-state solution.

Netanyahu has conformed to the latter half of that German request — sort of. Three months after winning Israel's general election in March, he altered his earlier rejection of an independent Palestine by endorsing the U.S.- and Europe-backed two-state proposal — though only under conditions the Palestinians considered nonstarters, such as no Palestinian army or airspace control and limits on the return of exiles. He has also dismissed demands that Jerusalem be the seat of the Palestinian state, calling the city "Israel's undivided capital." But having ignored most other demands forwarded by Palestinian authorities in their peace proposal, Netanyahu now finds himself under pressure from Western nations to give in to almost universal calls outside Israel that settlement on the West Bank be halted.

But by making significant concessions on West Bank construction, Netanyahu risks infuriating his hard-right coalition partners, who could bring the government down by quitting in protest. So he now seems to be shopping the idea of a compromise deal: a freeze on all new building but the right to see through construction that is already under way. In exchange, Israel may be extended various goodwill measures from Arab states, like reopening trade offices, initiating cultural exchanges and opening airspace to Israeli commercial planes, to further encourage movement toward renewed talks — and conditions for stable peace in the region.

None of that is enough for the Palestinians, and may prove too much for Netanyahu's government partners — which is one reason why signs that the Israeli leader is considering giving up even a little ground in the middle are inspiring some hope. "Politics is often the art of finding ladders tall enough to provide leaders who've climbed trees too tall for them with a face-saving manner of climbing down," says Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at the British think tank Chatham House and program director of international relations at Regents College in London. "That climbdown requires that small, careful steps be taken at a consistent pace. Today we're talking about settlement freezes, which is nothing compared to questions like Jerusalem, border placement or the fate of refugees. But you have to start somewhere."

Were even imperfect movement made on the settlement issue, it would probably be enough to clear the way for Netanyahu to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the margins of next month's United Nations General Assembly. That resumption of direct contacts would be a major boost for Obama's stated foreign policy priority of laying the foundation of lasting peace in the Middle East. And it would also reverse the dramatically deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian relations that helped lift hard-line, mutually hostile governments to power on both sides of the divide.

Still, those small, careful steps may be too slow for a situation already favoring extremes. In a survey released on Wednesday by Israel's Maagar Mohot polling company, two-thirds of respondents said they share the hard-right's refusal of any freeze on West Bank settlement — even if Arab nations reward such a move. Meanwhile, the hardship and anger produced in Palestine — and in Gaza particularly — is so great that slow but sure peace progress may not be enough in the end.

"The risk is that the hopelessness and helplessness has become so great by the time you reach the final destination that people on both sides say, 'All that, just for this? Forget it,' " Mekelberg says. "On the other hand, really big breakthroughs clearly aren't in the cards right now, so small steps are really the only choice you have. When things are this tight, small movement is big compared to no movement."

Which is why American and European diplomats this week are sounding hopeful about Netanyahu swapping his reputation as Mr. No for a stint as Mr. Maybe.