Analysis: Bibi's peace plan? Who knows…

Binyamin Netanyahu will try to manage the direct talks with the Palestinians in exactly the same way he ran the long period of preparation in the run up to them - bit by bit, without giving anything away until the very last moment he has to.

The Israeli prime minister is meeting the Palestinian president this weekend in Washington, under the auspices of President Barack Obama, without any details of his peace plan - if he even has one - becoming known.

On Monday evening, his last public appearance before leaving the country, he met Likud members for a Rosh Hashanah toast. Instead of giving them an inkling of his plans, he preferred to step back over three decades in time, saying that he hoped that Mahmoud Abbas would be "brave like (Egyptian President) Anwar Sadat".

Not a word about the one issue they were all waiting to hear about: would his government resume building in the West Bank settlements when the moratorium ends in less than four weeks?

He knows exactly what the Americans and the Palestinians want from him - to commit to a framework which will include the main elements of a Palestinian state in almost all the territories across the Green Line and some kind of sharing of Jerusalem.

This was the basic framework of every proposal discussed over the last 10 years, from Ehud Barak in Camp David to Ehud Olmert early last year in his secret talks with President Abbas.

Some who have talked to Mr Netanyahu over the last year have gone away convinced that he is prepared to take the crucial leap and agree to a similar plan, in return for some kind of US assurance that Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. Others have understood the opposite: Bibi will remain loyal to his old values and not divide the historical land of Israel and Jerusalem. Neither side knows the real Mr Netanyahu.

The prime minister has often been called a "zig-zagger" by his critics but he has been remarkably consistent over the last 18 months. He will talk about anything with the Palestinians, in direct negotiation, but on no account will he agree to any advance terms.

He gave away nothing of his positions in the useless indirect talks over the last two months and he would not even agree to discuss any of the "core issues" in this week's opening of the direct talks.

Even within his own circle of advisers, Mr Netanyahu has kept mum. The Israeli negotiating team was thrown together at the last moment. It has no position papers on an Israeli plan, not even as an opening point for negotiation.

So far this tactic has served him well, as the Palestinians have been forced to agree to talks without any prior Israeli commitments. The Obama administration had no choice but to soften its stance towards Israel.

But for how long will Mr Netanyahu be able to keep stonewalling?

The moment when he will have to show his true colours cannot be far off. Next week direct talks will finally be a reality again, and the Palestinians and Americans will be watching for every stall and excuse.

We may get our first glimpse of the new Netanyahu, or find out that nothing has changed.

    Last updated: 2:34pm, September 2 2010