Prominent Israelis Criticize Netanyahu

There's a big advertisement in Haaretz Friday signed by 102 eminent Israelis. "The world is changing around us," it says, "but the government of Israel is stagnant and paralyzed." The "rejectionist policy" of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is "extraordinarily dangerous" and "threatens to make Hamas more legitimate in the world than the Israeli government." It calls for recognition of a democratic Palestinian state as the basis for ending the conflict. Pressure is growing on Netanyahu, at home and abroad. Britain and France are indicating they might support a Palestinian declaration of independence at the U.N. in September. Hillary Clinton has pointedly refused to rule out that the U.S. will deal with a new Palestinian government, even if it includes Hamas.

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A death blow to the Middle East peace process, that's how Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describes this week's landmark agreement between the two main Palestinian factions.

That deal signed in Cairo ends a four-year feud between Fatah, rulers of the West Bank, and Hamas, rulers of the Gaza Strip. They've agreed to form a government of national unity and to seek U.N. recognition for a Palestinian state later this year.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Jerusalem on the debate in Israel over whether this is indeed a deathblow to peace or a new beginning.

PHILIP REEVES: A big advertisement was published today in the Israeli press. It's a declaration signed by more than 100 distinguished Israelis.

The world is changing around us, the declaration says, but the government of Israel is stagnant and paralyzed.

Israelis are anxious about the way the Arab Spring is fundamentally altering the landscape around them. There have always been divisions within Israel over the Palestinian issue, between so-called doves and hawks. These are coming to the fore again.

The declaration says Netanyahu's government is pursuing an extraordinarily dangerous rejectionist policy. It calls on Israelis to recognize a democratic Palestinian state as a basis for ending the conflict before it's too late.

Author and political scientist Yaron Ezrahi is one of those who signed.

Mr. YARON EZRAHI (Political Scientist): It's very important to recognize that Netanyahu's avoidance of a peace process is not a result of circumstances. It is a very firm policy of this prime minister.

REEVES: Fatah and Hamas have a long history of feuding. Their agreement may fall quickly apart. Ezrahi says it's impossible to predict what will happen, but he thinks Netanyahu's approach is wrong.

Mr. EZRAHI: I think a large part of the Israeli intelligentsia and rank-and-file citizens see this as an unbelievable, unexpected opportunity to tame Palestinian violence and move into diplomacy.

REEVES: Netanyahu is under growing international pressure. He went to Britain and France this week to see Prime Minister David Cameron and President Nicolas Sarkozy. Both leaders reportedly indicated that if the Palestinians seek recognition for their state at the U.N. General Assembly later this year, they just might support it, especially if the peace process is going nowhere.

There's more. The international community, including the U.S., continues to call on Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week did not rule out negotiating with a new Palestinian government in which Hamas has a place.

Netanyahu's allies deny his government is systematically blocking peacemaking. They blame the Palestinians.

Deputy Prime Minister SILVAN SHALOM (Israel): We are trying for two years since we took power for them to come and to negotiate with Israel, and they gave so many reasons why not to.

REEVES: That's Silvan Shalom, Israel's deputy prime minister. Israel regards Hamas as a terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel. Shalom says that's why there can't be peace negotiations right now.

Deputy Prime Minister SHALOM: To negotiate with a government that half of it is asking to kill you, as it looks to me, it doesn't make sense.

REEVES: Yet these are changing times. Look to history, says Yaron Ezrahi, it's littered with examples of other extremist organizations elsewhere that have forsworn violence as new states were born. Ezrahi is wary about all this, but he says Hamas should not necessarily be judged by its past.

Mr. EZRAHI: Hamas might be changing. If it is changing, it is in the beginning of the process of change because Hamas, once it enters this new framework of a Palestinian government, will increasingly have much more to lose by resulting to violence.

REEVES: Ezrahi says that requires optimism. That's in short supply in this part of the Middle East.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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