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ANALYSIS - Israel's leader offers Obama some room to maneuver

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave U.S. President Barack Obama a narrow opening for pursuing Middle East peace on Sunday by offering a highly qualified endorsement for a demilitarized Palestinian state.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and his wife, Sarah, are surrounded by bodyguards after his speech at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv June 14, 2009. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

In a speech aimed at Obama as much as the Palestinians, Netanyahu said he would support a Palestinian state but insisted it be demilitarized and that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its undivided capital.

Obama welcomed Netanyahu’s remarks as an “important step forward” and accepted them as an endorsement of his goal of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although generally restating previous Israeli positions on most issues, Netanyahu gave Obama just enough latitude to enable the U.S. leader to move ahead with peacemaking.

“In terms of the concern that President Obama had about the need to promote a two-state solution, Netanyahu has said things now that he, that is President Obama, will be able to work with,” said Martin Indyk, the director of the Saban Center at the liberal Brookings Institution think tank.

He said a demilitarized Palestinian state was very similar to the nonmilitarized state put forward by President Bill Clinton during negotiations toward the end of his administration.

And treaties with limitations on sovereignty are not new. The Israeli peace treaty with Egypt, for example, allows only police forces and not military troops in the Sinai, he said.

“So a demilitarized state on its face as an opening position is, I think, something that the United States can work with,” said Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.


Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Mideast studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Netanyahu had couched the endorsement of a Palestinian state in terms that would undermine and weaken Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle with the Islamic militants from Hamas.

“He did say a Palestinian state, which is somewhat of a breakthrough for a Likud leader,” Cook said. “But he repeated the same kinds of conditions on that Palestinian state that he has repeated over and over again. Demilitarization. No control over its air space, Israel can basically control its borders.”

Netanyahu also insisted that Palestinians give up their demand that refugees be allowed to return and resettle within the borders of the current state of Israel.

“That, interestingly, is something that I think everybody pretty much recognizes, but to articulate it puts the Palestinians in a deeply awkward, awkward position,” Cook said. “It really does very little to help Abu Mazen (Abbas) in his struggle with Hamas.”

Netanyahu also stopped short of declaring a full freeze on Israeli settlement activity as sought by Obama, agreeing only that Israel would build no new settlements and would not expropriate more Palestinian land. That leaves an issue that will continue to cause friction in U.S.-Israeli relations.

But David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institution for Near East Policy, said Netanyahu had given Obama “something to work with, even if there are still differences on the settlement issue.”

“Netanyahu took a major stride by making clear that the issue is no longer his refusal to accept a Palestinian state but rather the very shape of the state,” said Makovsky, co-author of the new book “Myths, Illusions and Peace.”

“It’s important because Netanyahu represents the right-of-center parties that have always been more wary of the peace process, believing that it was a trap that would encourage terrorism,” he added.

But Cook said Netanyahu had left Obama with a tough job to move the peace process forward.

“He did recognize a Palestinian state, but that’s a thin reed to hold on to given all the other conditions,” Cook said. “I don’t expect that President Obama will throw up his hands and say, ‘OK, that’s it.’ But he certainly didn’t give Obama much to work with.”