Freeze Means Ruse in Hebrew

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November 30, 2009

We finally have the long sought-after settlement freeze. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a grand show of how “painful” a concession Israel is making on behalf of a peace agreement, and how it demonstrates Israel’s dedication to cooperating with the Palestinian Authority. Predictably, like clockwork, members of the settlement movement condemned Bibi for caving in to American demands, appeasing “the Arabs” and leading the country to ruin.

However, everyone knows the truth. The more sensible of the right-leaning pundits have written extensively, both before and since the freeze announcement, that a settlement freeze will not bring peace. They’re absolutely right.

In a government as radically reactionary as the one Israel has now, even the smallest, most rhetorical concession on settlements is politically difficult. That said, what Netanyahu has promised may have some political significance, but will have little impact on the ground at all.

Israel’s ten-month freeze excludes all work that has already begun, excludes East Jerusalem and permits the building of public facilities in any settlements. Taken together, these caveats amount to a ten-month promise simply to refrain from starting new settlements. This is not a very big leap, as new settlements in the West Bank have been contrary to Israeli policy since 1993. Settlement expansion in that time has consisted of the growth of existing settlements and covert government cooperation in the setting up of “illegal outposts.” [NOTE: Some will correctly point out that Israel has quite publicly clashed with settlers to remove such outposts. While this is true, those remain isolated incidents that have not diminished the number of outposts in the West Bank to any significant degree. Many of these outposts receive protection, electricity, water and other services from the Israeli government]

To show just how seriously Israel takes this freeze, the very day after Bibi announced it, Israel announced the beginnings of 28 new public structures in existing settlements. No doubt, this was a bone being tossed to the settler leadership, but it was also a clear mockery of the freeze that Barack Obama had pushed so hard for.

As Daniel Levy correctly points out in his blog, “…building 3000 units in ten months neatly dovetails the regular annual settlement construction rates.” Perhaps that will mean that after the freeze ends there will be a brief decline in the expansion rate, but that will be too late do peace any good and will likely be used to open political space for even more rapid expansion.

The exemption of Jerusalem is the most vexing to the international community and the most obnoxious to the Palestinians. The view from the ground makes it clear that Jerusalem is the site of the most aggressive consolidation of Israeli control. This is to be expected; most Israelis know they will give up most of the West Bank, and, in fact, a majority is eager to do so. But the mantra of Jerusalem remaining the undivided capital of Israel still holds powerful sway over many Israelis across a broad swath of the political spectrum.

The current trend of new Jewish settlements such as Nof Zion being set up in the heart of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem is clearly intended to preempt any negotiations on sharing the city. While many in the center-right parties are willing to give up much of the West Bank, they do not wish to see Jerusalem continue as a matter for final status negotiations, but would prefer to create facts on the ground which decide the matter. At the very least, these activities certainly moot the formula in the Clinton Parameters: that which is Jewish remains with Israel and that which is Arab goes to the Palestinians, with arrangements made for sharing the Old City and the holy sites. The Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, often just some scattered buildings in Arab neighborhoods but sometimes a stronger presence, will make the ideas in the Clinton plan, which were not easy to envision even back in 2000, completely unworkable.

Given these realities, it’s clear that the so-called freeze is nothing of the kind, and will not give Mahmoud Abbas anything that he needs to begin negotiations with Israel while retaining his credibility.

Is it only for show then? No. Bibi has more reasons than appearing to appease the Americans. He is trying to make Abbas appear intractable in his refusal to meet with Israel by saying, “We took this difficult step and still Abbas refuses.” Netanyahu is also hoping that by doing this, the US and the EU will lower the pressure on Israel, while keeping his coalition safe.

Is it working? Bibi’s government remains stable. Despite some wailing and lamentation, even from within his own Likud party, there have been no resignations over the so-called “freeze.” The governing coalition in the Knesset continues to retain its majority, which shows that even the far right understands that though they may not like the freeze, Israel has given up nothing significant.

On the surface, public response from the US and much of Europe has seemed positive. However, praise has been moderate, if not cool. The Americans and Europeans do not seem to have been taken in by Netanyahu’s sleight of hand. While they continue to maintain their call for the Palestinian Authority to re-engage in talks, neither the US nor the EU has gone out of its way to pressure the PA into seizing the moment either.

Indeed, as Daniel Levy points out, the Americans seem particularly unimpressed with the “freeze.” Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Envoy George Mitchell referred to a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, an explicit description that, while it has been implied in the past, has never been so clearly stated by the US. Levy believes that this is a message of dissatisfaction being sent to Israel by the Obama Administration.

Levy is probably right. But the challenge for Obama has not changed. Netanyahu’s prevarication only strengthens the need for the Americans to come in with clear expectations for both Israel and the Palestinians, with clear consequences spelled out for each side if they do not cooperate.

Recent statements have indicated that the US is still pushing for a comprehensive, regional peace agreement. That would include deals between Israel and the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon as well as the fulfillment of the Saudi Plan’s promise of full normalization of relations between Israel and all of the Arab League member states. Those statements have also indicated that the Americans have realized that bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinians will not work on their own. To that end, the US appears to be prepared to shuttle between Israel and the Palestinians, on one track, and the Syrians on another.

That is promising. And it is also clear that the US is willing to extend itself toward security guarantees for Israel, which will be necessary to secure Israeli compliance and to assure the Israeli people that America has their back if any of the Arab states violate the terms of a future peace agreement.

However, the two-state solution is now in critical condition If Barack Obama hopes to resuscitate it, he needs to bring in more elements of his vision of the actual endgame. The mention of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders must be more than a message to Israel. It must translate into an US policy that envisions final borders, with modifications to the ‘67 ones that address Israel’s security needs, as well as envisioning a Palestinian state that is viable and contiguous, and that any land swaps undertaken between Israel and Palestine are equal and fair.

Obama must also find a way to take on Jerusalem. In the ten months of Bibi’s alleged freeze, the President needs to reach out to the key Democrats in Congress and get them behind the idea that Jerusalem must be shared, that it is a final status issue and that the growing Jewish presence in Arab East Jerusalem must be stopped. The best way to do this would be to frame the American stance as opposing new facts on the ground, and coupled with a clear stance against the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper, excepting some number for family reunification.

If President Obama can present a united American front on Jerusalem, the resolution of the refugee issue and on the basic contours of final borders by the end of the ten-month period, American diplomacy can have a chance. It can also be a package Obama can present to the Israeli people as a difficult compromise, but one that would bring the long-sought peace Israelis crave.

The trick now will be for Obama administration to turn Netanyahu’s game of Three-card Monte to America’s diplomatic advantage. It won’t be easy. But, after the setbacks of the past year, time is running out. In recent days, it seems that there is real reason to believe that Obama’s strategy with regard to Iran’s nuclear program may be working. He must lay the groundwork now to take advantage of any success on the Iranian front to sell a well-considered peace plan to the Israeli people and the domestic Jewish community.

Bibi’s game is well-played, but Obama is still the President of the United States. He has more cards to play than Netanyahu ever can. Now is the time to play them wisely.

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