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Netanyahu 'Bites The Bullet'

Israeli Prime Minister Opts For New Settlement Formula Designed To Preserve Right Wing Government While Also Bending To President Obama's Demand On Settlement Freeze

Netanyahu Declares:' We want Peace But Will Not Be Suckers! Palestinians Must Recognize Israel As Jewish State In Same Way As They Demand Our Recognition For Palestinian State!'

IsraCast Assessment: Netanyahu Trying To Resolve Settlements Dispute With Obama & Gain Room For Maneuver Against Iranian Nuclear Threat

Bibi Netanyahu

 The building at Israeli settlements has placed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu between the hammer and anvil of both international and domestic politics. U.S. President Barack Obama has relentlessly pressured Netanyahu to halt building at the settlements while right-wing supporters warned the Prime Minister against any such step. Coming against the backdrop of fresh reports that Iran is advancing in its nuclear weapons project, Netanyahu has been hard pressed to find a course of action that might be accepted, if grudgingly, both at home and in Washington.

 Building at existing settlements has caught the Israeli Prime Minister in a tug-of-war between U.S. President Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing supporters, who are categorically opposed to any settlement freeze. The Prime Minister has now presented a new settlement formula which he hopes will placate both Obama and Israeli right-wingers for the immediate future. What are the prospects he will succeed? The current season of discontent has swirled around Obama's ultimatum demanding that Netanyahu agree to a settlement freeze as a condition for jump-starting the stagnant peace contacts with West Bank Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In addition, American officials made their point by drawing a linkage between the settlement freeze and the U.S. effort to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Obviously, no Israeli prime minister would relish a falling out with an American president at a time that Iran, unless stopped one way or the other, may be about to acquire nuclear weapons, possibly, for executing its threat to wipe Israel off the map. And make no mistake, time is of the essence. Glyn Davies, America's chief envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna has disclosed: 'Iran is now very near or in possession of enough low-enriched uranium to produce one nuclear weapon'. The U.S. statement in effect confirmed a prior Israeli intelligence assessment that Iran is capable of a ' breakout' - converting its supply of low-grade enriched uranium into the 93% required for a nuclear weapon. Moreover, Iran was capable of achieving this within 'a number of months to one year'. (At the same time, Israeli intelligence experts did also estimate that the Iranians would still have to overcome the hurdle of converting the high-enriched uranium into a nuclear warhead).

In any case, in light of these pressing circumstances, Netanyahu has good reason to get back into Obama's good graces. But 'there's the rub': the Prime Minister would have to relent on his own and the Israeli Right's sacrosanct vow to continue building at settlements. (No new settlements have been founded for years). Netanyahu's own Likud party, coalition partners and the 300,000 Israeli residents in Judea & Samaria (the West Bank) would not tolerate, what would be perceived, as an abject sellout of Likud values. It looked like a lose- lose situation. If Netanyahu gave in to Obama, his coalition government might collapse but if he did not concede on settlement building, Israel would risk international isolation in the face of the Iranian nuclear specter.

Maale Adumim

The Prime Minister has tried to unravel this double bind with a new formula that he hopes will keep his coalition in tact while placating the Obama administration. It involves a building 'moratorium', reportedly of six or nine months duration, but meanwhile 2500 housing units now in various stages of construction would be completed. In addition, another new 455 housing units would be built in the main settlement blocs such as Maale Adumim, Gush Etzion, etc. By sweetening the bitter pill, the Prime Minister has apparently managed to stifle any serious revolt in his Likud party and coalition partners. Likud cabinet minister Silvan Shalom, a former foreign minister, failed in his bid to 'man the barricades' against Netanyahu's gambit. Shalom argued that Israel should not pay such a price to persuade Mahmoud Abbas to meet with Netanyahu.

Cabinet Minister Uzi Landau, of Lieberman's party also warned the settlement freeze would be the start of the slippery slope for Israel-the freeze, although defined as temporary would, as things are wont to do, become permanent. However, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman himself declared that the issue would not precipitate the government's fall. At this point, although there is some grumbling inside the Likud and the right- wing parties, only the settlers have declared they will take to the warpath against Netanyahu.

The Prime Minister has won over most of his critics on the Right with this rationale: The Palestinians have always torpedoed every peace plan because they simply are unwilling to accept the idea of a Jewish homeland alongside their own Palestinian state. They can be counted upon to do so again. So why shouldn't Israel let the Palestinians take the rap for again sabotaging the peace effort. It makes political sense for Israel to go along with Obama and agree to the temporary freeze as a price for mending any damaged bridges with Washington. At the same time, Israel will stake its permanent claim to the territory where the new 455 approved housing units will go up in the settlement blocs. This is Netanyahu's game plan - 'Keep your eye on the Iranian ball' and indeed it should be the main piece in the Middle East mosaic as viewed from Jerusalem.

Speaking to a Likud party rally before the New Jewish Year, the Prime Minister signaled he would drive a hard bargain declaring:'We want peace with the Palestinians, but we're not suckers!' This was an obvious reference to Israel's unilateral evacuation from the Gaza Strip, which the Palestinians then exploited as a launchpad for escalating the rocketing of Israeli civilians. Netanyahu declared that he would 'seek serious not fictitious security arrangements for Judea and Samaria'. It went without saying, Jerusalem would remain Israel's undivided capital.

Ehud Barak (Photo: Amit Shabi)

On the other side of the political spectrum, Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor is solidly behind the Prime Minister. However, four Labour dissidents opposed to Netanyahu, surprisingly reject the PM's formula as does Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni in light of their position on settlement building. Netanyahu can count on relative quiet on the domestic front as he, Obama and Abbas whittle down their remaining differences. The Palestinians have been declaring there's no way they'll negotiate with Netanyahu, unless there is a blanket halt to all Israeli building on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. But with the U.S. President determined to get the Israeli-Palestinian show on the road, chances are better than even that he'll succeed.

Where those talks go is another story. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was flabbergasted that Abbas turned down the offer he made the Palestinians before leaving office recently. There is no way, Netanyahu will put anything similar to it on the table. But if and when the negotiations are resumed, Obama may surprise Netanyahu by playing a greater role than any of his predecessors in the White House. Then again, the unexpected is the rule in the Middle East ... just consider Netanyahu's 'secret flight' this week to an unknown destination, which turned out to be Russia, a major supplier of Iran's nuclear know-how.

N.B.- The expression 'bite the bullet' has apparently two meanings both derived from warlike procedures involving the Enfield rifle during the 19th century.

1. Wounded soldiers facing medical treatment in the field without anesthetic were told to bite on a bullet to help suppress the pain. Common day usage implies having to face up to a tough situation by having to adopt a course of action not necessarily to one's liking.

2. The firing procedure for the Enfield required the soldier to bite off the end of a closed gunpowder container and pour it down the barrel for firing the gun. Both these meanings are applicable to Prime Minister Netanyahu in his having to placate his right-wing critics and President Barack Obama in the settlement conundrum.

David Essing

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