Netanyahu’s New Government: Warming to Peace Talks with the Palestinians?

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Oded Balilty / Reuters

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and newly appointed minister Shaul Mofaz attend the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on May 13, 2012

A flurry of gestures toward the Palestinian leadership suggests that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his new role as leader of a center-right government, is warming toward the resumption of peace talks — or at least giving the appearance of warming; call it a rosy glow rising from a pair of announcements on Monday. One was about Palestinian prisoners who had been carrying out a mass hunger strike for weeks inside Israeli prisons. With several prisoners near death, Netanyahu approved an agreement that improves prison conditions and permits visits by family members in the Gaza Strip, the heavily guarded enclave that Palestinians have been allowed out of only for medical emergencies. Greeted by Palestinians as a victory, the deal eased concerns that a prisoner’s death might combust what are usually routine protests planned for Tuesday’s commemoration of Nakba Day, the “catastrophe” of Israel’s 1948 victory over Arab forces trying to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state.

(PHOTOS: Palestinians Commemorate Their Day of ‘Catastrophe’)

At the same time, Netanyahu agreed to hand over the bodies of some 100 Palestinians buried in Israel after being killed in firefights or terrorist attacks. The bodies had been held for years and promised for repatriation in the past. This time, Israeli officials say they’re really going back.

“It is our hope that this decision will serve to build confidence between the parties and further peace,” concluded the statement of Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev. Neither move is intended to bring Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table. Abbas after all continues to demand that talks resume only after Israel stops settlement construction in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank, the section of Israeli-occupied territory he governs as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA). (Gaza, which is home to somewhat fewer Palestinians, is ruled by Hamas, the militant Islamic party that refuses to negotiate with Israel, but in recent months has made at least marginally more agreeable noises and held firmly to a cease-fire.)

Netanyahu’s decisions are actions, however, not words. Each side has an endless supply of the latter, but actually doing something — releasing the bodies, for instance — involves spending an asset, at the very least. Another way of seeing the transaction is as an investment in Abbas. The PA president was diminished by the last concession made by Netanyahu’s government, because the concession was made to Hamas: the October announcement that 1,027 Palestinian prisoners would be freed in exchange for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas for four years. A few days later, a clearly irked Abbas told TIME he was calling on Netanyahu to free prisoners whose liberty he could claim — old-timers held by Israel since before the 1994 Oslo accords. Abbas repeated the request to Netanyahu’s go-between on Saturday, when they met to discuss the contents of Bibi’s reply to a letter Abbas had sent last month, more or less to confirm that talks were dead.

What’s changed? Only Israel’s government. By welcoming the Kadima Party into the ruling coalition last week, Netanyahu broadened the government to include the so-called silent majority of Israel, the middle class that remains preoccupied with security but values keeping a channel open to Palestinian moderates. A coalition that claims to represent that much of Israeli society is less impervious to the criticism that the E.U.’s 27 foreign ministers leveled at Israel on Monday, castigating the Jewish state over “developments on the ground which threaten to make a two-state solution impossible.” The situation the E.U. ministers listed — accelerated construction in Israeli settlements, demolition of Palestinian homes and wrecking of cisterns and farm buildings built with E.U. funds — was not terribly alarming to the right-wing government Netanyahu led until a few days ago. If anything, Europe’s disapproval offered that defiant assembly a kind of comfort. The burning issue preoccupying the previous Cabinet was how to better protect settlers in the face of Israeli Supreme Court rulings that insisted Israel abide by its own laws about where it can build on the Palestinian territory it has occupied since 1967 — never mind international law forbidding any settlements at all.

“The left wing made an outcry. The right wing threatened to dismantle the government … At the same time, without headlines, thousands more Israelis settled in Judea and Samaria,” Nahum Barnea wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, using the Jewish name for the West Bank. The columnist quoted a speech by Likud minister without portfolio Benny Begin noting “about 40,000 Jews had settled there since the end of the construction freeze — a sizable number. These settlers are the real monument on the grave of the two-state solution.”

Finally, showing a little leg on peace gives Netanyahu maneuvering room on other issues of international import — chiefly Iran. In the end, it may matter more, because much as the Israeli public wants attention paid on the Palestinian issue, its expectations of a solution are extraordinarily low. The latest edition of the Peace Index, a monthly poll that has gauged Israeli attitudes toward negotiations since the heady days of Oslo, found that only 15% of the Jewish population ranks a peace agreement with the Palestinians as the most important public issue, finishing just above “improving Israel’s standing in the international arena.” The two issues are linked, of course, and together create their own center of gravity. Appearing inclined toward peace tends to improve Israel’s image, which outside the U.S. is less than golden. What’s more, confidence-building measures also have an effect on the domestic front, offering a lift without raising hopes to any uncomfortable degree (as Oslo did, only to be crushed by the suicide bombings of the second intifadeh that peaked 10 years ago this spring). The spreadsheet balances the matter precisely: 58% of Jewish Israelis defined the Israeli-Palestinian issue as “urgent” or “very urgent.” And 58% say they don’t believe the conflict will end in the next 10 years.

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