Why does Bibi Netanyahu think that everyone will believe him when he ventriloquise, especially when he is talking about life-and-death issues like peace with the Arabs, particularly the Palestinians?

He undoubtedly does not know what may be in store for him, even at home, where his bloated new government — 30 ministers and a half dozen deputy ministers — has just been introduced to the Knesset. This hodgepodge cabinet of ultra-rightists and disingenuous leftists is bound to splinter once it faces its first serious test, be it dealing with the crippled Israeli economy or the so-called Mideast “peace process''.

Economic plan

Throughout the election campaign the hawkish Israeli leader has adamantly refused to acknowledge that a final Palestinian-Israeli settlement would see the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, a point that is generally accepted world-wide although there is nowadays a growing number of Palestinians, Israelis and others who prefer a one-state solution for the two people.

Netanyahu would only talk about an “economic plan'' that supposedly would help the Palestinians who have long endured a cruel Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1967. Even the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip in September 2005 has failed to improve life in the crowded enclave because of the continued land, sea and air blockade.

However, in recent days, Netanyahu has seemingly changed his tune, vaguely promising “a viable peace with all of Israel's Arab neighbours''. Here, he chose, for example, not to acknowledge the Arab Peace Initiative which had been offered seven years ago by Arab governments and supported by many Muslim states elsewhere. (At the just-concluded Arab summit in Qatar, Arab leaders dropped hints that their initiative would not remain on the table indefinitely.)

Netanyahu may be up for a surprise when he arrives in Washington in May to meet US President Barack Obama, who has undoubtedly been aware of growing concerns within the European Union about the extremist views of the Israeli leader and several members of his government, especially Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who wants to administer an oath of loyalty to all citizens, particularly the Palestinian Arabs in Israel.

A 17-page report prepared by a bipartisan group of prominent Americans who have had the opportunity to come in touch with the Middle East was submitted to President Barack Obama recently. The document highlights the seriousness of the situation with its eye-catching title: “A last chance for a two-state Israel-Palestine agreement.''

A copy of the report, which has yet to be circulated widely, was delivered to Obama by one of the signatories, Paul Volcker, who has been named senior economic adviser to the president. Among the other 10 signatories are former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Senator Chuck Hagel, former Congressman Lee Hamilton, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn. All serve as senior advisers of the US/Middle East Project, whose president is Henry Siegman.

Mutually acceptable principles

The group suggested that Obama needs “to flesh out the outlines of a fair, viable and sustainable agreement, based on principles that both Israel and the Palestinians have previously accepted'' by endorsing UN resolutions 242 and 338, the Oslo Accords, the Roadmap and the 2007 Annapolis understandings.

They noted that any “new US effort to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement may anger certain domestic constituencies,'' an obvious reference to the Israeli lobby. “We do not, however, believe it is beyond the capability of an American President to explain to the American people why this long-running dispute must at long last be ended and why it will take much diplomatic heavy lifting and public expenditure to make it work.''

Otherwise, it added, “in the end the stakes are too high to pursue a hands-off or arm's-length approach.'' To maximise the prospects for success, the report suggested four steps: Present a clear US vision to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which would include two states based on the June 4, 1967 borders “with minor, reciprocal, and agreed upon modifications;'' a solution to the refugee problem that does not entail a general right of return but addresses “the Palestinian refugees' sense of injustice and provides them with meaningful financial compensation as well as resettlement assistance''; and Jerusalem as home to both capitals. They also underlined the need for “a more pragmatic approach toward Hamas and a Palestinian unity govenment.'' They conceded that “direct US engagement with Hamas may not now be practical, but shutting out the movement and isolating Gaza has only made it stronger and Fatah weaker.''

Consequently, the US should “cease discouraging Palestinian national reconciliation and make clear that a [Palestinian] govenment ... that commits to abiding by the results of a national referendum on a future peace agreement would not be boycotted or sanctioned'' — a position hat Hamas has long favoured.

Whether Obama will go along with these suggestions is too early to tell but Netanyahu needs to realize quickly that he cannot bury his head in the sand for too long.

George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at ghishmeh@gulfnews.com