Angel of peace or wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Washinton, US – Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed willingness in Washington to compromise in Mideast peace talks.

Critics say it is all just theatrics.

But supporters note that it has been Israel’s rightwing that has been most successful with peace overtures in the past.

Netanyahu bit off grand phrases during the lead-up to the first peace talks in nearly two years, which began Thursday at the US State Department in Washington.

He spoke of a “historic compromise” in the Middle East. He referred affectionately to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as his “partner for peace”.

After decades of bloody sparring, most people in the region long for true peace and reconciliation. But many wonder how serious Netanyahu and his promises are, and see the transformation from hawk to peace angel with a large portion of mistrust.

The Mideast conflict continues, defying all efforts to stop the constant beat of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

But popular wisdom in Israel suggests that if anyone can succeed then it will only be a rightwing government like that of Netanyahu.

That’s because many believe Netanyahu can count on not only his own supporters in the right wing, but also the automatic support of the left-wing and Arabic parties in the Knesset.

A leftwing government would have to deal with bitter resistance from the right- wing and settler-friendly parties, the line of argument goes. There is, of course, also the possibility that Netanyahu’s concessions could lose him the support of some of his rightwing allies.

The most difficult peace agreement in the Middle East – the treaty between Israel and Egypt – was sealed during Israel’s historic first right-wing government.

Menachem Begin and his Likud Party ended nearly three decades of Labour Party rule in Israel in 1977. After two years of intense US mediation, Begin signed the peace treaty with Egypt.

In exchange, he gave up the Sinai Peninsula that Israel had occupied since the 1967 war.

The peace treaty with Jordan was somewhat easier, concluded in 1994 under the Labour Party’s Yitzhak Rabin.

There was a much more limited territorial concession, yet Rabin paid the price with his life after a right-wing Israeli radical assassinated him – symbolic of the outcry against the liberal leader’s peace overture.

Since then, the peace process with the Palestinians has been largely stalemated.

Netanyahu and Abbas need to take a deep breath if they want to reach the goal of a peace agreement - especially with radical Islamic Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the fanatic Israeli settlers in the West Bank trying to stir things up.

“I believe that Netanyahu is serious,” the Israeli political science professor Efraim Inbar said Thursday. After all, he’s the first Israeli leader who pushed through a building moratorium for Israelis in the Palestinians’ territory, Inbar noted.

“He gained recognition for that. And he’s prepared to make large concessions - the question is, is that enough for the Palestinians?” Inbar said.

But Netanyahu also agreed to the peace talks to keep the US and its allies happy.

“Everyone wants peace talks, because it’s good for everyone,” Inbar said. “Even if nothing comes out of it.”

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