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A spat with Netanyahu

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NetanyahuA spat with Netanyahu
By Sherine Tadros

I turned up outside the Prime Minister's Office in West Jerusalem two and a half hours before his press conference was due to begin.  His press people insisted we had to arrive that early for security reasons  – I don't even turn up two and a half hours before an international flight I argued, but it was no use. Rules are rules.  I consoled myself with the thought there’d at least be tea and biscuits in the waiting room.

There were no tea and biscuits and I never saw the waiting room.  Two hours, six x-rays, a round of questioning and a strip search later, I was allowed into the conference room, where all the other (mainly Jewish Israeli) journalists had been sitting for hours – they evidently weren’t given the same special treatment.

In my eighteen months in Jerusalem, I have never attended a PM press conference at his office.  The reason is that these events are almost always conducted in Hebrew (which I don’t speak).

The political hacks that cover them all know each other the PM’s team knows them and everyone knows the basic drill – it makes for a pretty intimidating atmosphere, especially if you’re the new kid.

The press conference was to announce Israel's membership to the OECD – 31 member states had unanimously voted to let Israel into the organisation and PM Netanyahu was going to tell us all what a great move that was (while ignoring the hypocrisy of being in a group aimed at promoting economic progress while Israel's siege causes perhaps the fastest rate of "de-development" in Gaza the world has ever seen).

Membership actually means very little in practical terms to Israel.  It is however important for her psyche.  The bully in the playground pretends he doesn't care he's always left out of things, but he really does.  The same logic often applies to Israel- she cares a lot more about her lack of friends then she lets on.

Guarentees or no guarantees?

The PM's presentation lasted about 45 minutes – all in Hebrew.  All I know is that he used a PowerPoint presentation and said the word 'progress' in English a lot.  But I wasn't there for the presentation, I was there to ask Netanyahu a very simple question.

On Sunday, the Palestinians announced the start of "proximity talks."  The same talks that they'd been refusing to enter into this last month without what they called "guarantees" (or pre-conditions as Israel calls them). These are:

a) Israel’s settlement empire building in East Jerusalem would stop; and b) core issues (such as borders/Jerusalem) would be up for discussion during the indirect talks.

While Israeli officials continue to maintain they have not made any such guarantees (Netanyahu said on Sunday that the talks are taking place "without preconditions"), the Palestinians say they have aceepted to talk because the US offered them assurances of Israeli guarantees on the two points above.  Someone is not telling the truth, and I wanted to put that to the Israeli PM.

Confronting Netanyahu

I sat in the very first row, within spitting distance of Netanyahu.  It wasn't easy getting a question in, I was told by the PM's spokesperson before the press conference it wasn't going to happen (and that's when he still thought I was going to ask about the OECD).

At the end of the press conference, I said "Mr Netanyahu please, just one quick question"  his aides, knowing full well who I am and who I work for, were beckoning the PM away, saying time is up.

I asked him again, "just 20 seconds" and he yielded.. "go ahead" he said to me, as the other journalists laughed at his generosity to the new girl.

Below is a video of our conversation and the transcript (apologies for the low audio on my questions, I didn’t have a mic).

Transcript

Sherine: What guarantees or gestures did you offer the Palestinians via the Americans to get them to change their minds and agree to proximity talks?

Netanyahu:  What a narrow view you have.

Sherine : Were there any gestures?

Netanyahu:  There is a built in assumption in your question and that's for the next news conference.  It's the axiom in the question that's wrong.

Sherine: Were there any guarantees?

Netanyahu: Thank you

Peace talks on shaky ground

Netanyahu accused me of assuming he had made the guarantees (yet he wouldn't answer the question of whether or not he had made them either).

The most probable answer is that he has made SILENT guarantees to the Palestinians, via the Americans, but he won't be announcing those publicly (mainly for domestic political reasons).

The US said in a statement on Sunday night the Israelis had agreed to stop building in a settlement in East Jerusalem (Ramat Shlomo) – somewhat outing an apparent Israeli concession.

While Israel maintains this is not a concession or policy choice but a bureaucratic decision (work would not have started on that particular project anyway for years they argue), the fact remains that the US chose to single out this one (controversial) housing project and frame it as something the Israelis have offered in good faith to the Palestinians ahead of the proximity talks. 

In the coming months there is much that could torpedo these indirect talks – the right wing settler movements in Israel are determined to stop Netanyahu mentioning the J word in talks with the Palestinians for example.

But a crack has appeared even before the talks really start with this issue of guarantees.  And it begs the question – if Netanyahu is not willing to say in public that he is even talking about borders and settlements, what hope is there he'll make a deal on either?

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