Following Obama and Netanyahu's recent photo opportunity and meeting at the White House, both the New York Times and Haaretz published editorials indicating that while they viewed the fence-mending meeting as positive, they were hesitant to trust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority. My personal feelings are the same.
The Times pointed out that at no time during Netanyahu's public remarks in Washington did he mention a Palestinian state or the two-state solution while Haaretz lamented that Netanyahu seemed unable to see the forest through the trees and spoke only about Israel's security concerns regarding withdrawal and his disapproval of Palestinian textbooks (as if that has any real bearing on the real issues at hand here). Both newspapers remarked on Obama's declaration of trust for Netanyahu but were unwilling to do the same. The Times, commenting on Netanyahu's public invitation for Obama to visit Israel (and hopefully Ramallah on that same trip), urged the President to go to Israel and attempt to convince Israelis that a two state solution with their Palestinian neighbors was in the long-term interest of Israel. Haaretz demanded that Netanyahu prove his commitment to peace through deeds rather than words.
The most effective way Mr. Netanyahu can prove his commitment to the peace process and usher in direct negotiations with the Palestinians is to extend and expand the current settlement moratorium. He should soon declare that the freeze will be extended to cover the predetermined length of direct negotiations and vow that as long as these direct negotiations are underway Israel will meet its obligations under the Road Map and freeze settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Expanding the freeze to East Jerusalem will prove that Netanyahu is willing to entertain the Palestinian demand to locate their capital in the city.
Secondly, Netanyahu should publicly announce that his administration is ready and eager to discuss all the core issues of the conflict (borders, water, security, refugees, settlements, and Jerusalem) in direct negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in negotiations mediated by the United States or Middle East Quartet. Such negotiations should have a predetermined start and end date to avoid open-ended talks that benefit Israelis while stalling Palestinian statehood. If Prime Minister Netanyahu is truly as dedicated to peace as he claims he is, he should have no problem taking these simple steps.
For his part, if Netanyahu accedes to these two steps, Abbas should make a public statement mirroring Netanyahu's, which conveys his willingness and dedication to enter into direct negotiations that cover all the core issues with no preconditions or caveats. If the Palestinian leadership becomes unwilling, Obama should not hesitate to pressure them to join direct talks.
There are good reasons why the Times and Haaretz are hesitant to trust Benjamin Netanyahu on peace, but obvious ways to assuage these hesitations exist for the Prime Minister. With the end of the freeze approaching in September, Netanyahu should be proactive and work to usher in direct negotiations prior to this date, just as he promised Obama.