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Netanyahu's Constructive Ambiguity

While Obama Administration Applauds Prime Minister Netanyahu's Ten- month Housing Freeze On West Bank, Palestinians Reject It

Israeli Leader's 'Constructive Ambiguity' Designed To Placate U.S. While Urging Palestinians To Return To Peace Talks

Although Blasted By Settlers For Capitulating To U.S., Netanyahu Enjoys Cabinet Support

Benyamin Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)

In a dramatic diplomatic development, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has announced a ten-month suspension of housing permits for building in West Bank settlements. At the same time, Netanyahu made clear that housing construction would continue in Jerusalem's suburbs such as Gilo, which were constructed beyond the 1967 line after the Six Day War of 1967. In the existing West Bank settlements, public buildings such as schools, kindergartens and synagogues will continue as well as the completing of 3,000 housing units now underway. Analyst David Essing is of the view that Netanyahu's ambiguous approach on settlement construction may prove to impact as much on Israel's confrontation with Iran as it does on the Palestinians.

What prompted Israel's 'hardline', right-wing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to suspend housing construction in West Bank settlements for 10 months? It was indeed the first time since another Likud leader, no less than Menachem Begin, announced his three-month 'moratorium' on building new settlements back in the seventies. That step was a negotiating gesture to Egypt's President Anwar Sadat. At the time, Sadat knocked the ball back into Begin's court and the two leaders then forged the historic Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Will the Palestinians now follow suit and return to the conference table? That remains to be seen. Their initial reaction has been to reject Netanyahu's gesture 'as not going far enough because it does not included East Jerusalem'. So, it may very well be that the West Bank Palestinians, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, will remain steadfast in 'never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity', rather than achieving their declared goal of Palestine.

Barack Obama

What can be said is that U.S. President Barack Obama started the ball rolling by taking some bad advice when he declared that Israel had to impose a total freeze on all settlement building, something that no former president had decreed and a demand that no Likud prime minister could accept and remain in office. Naturally, the West Bank Palestinians latched on to Obama's edict adding they would not return to peace negotiations until Netanyahu had complied. Moreover, Obama had also made his famous Cairo address appealing for a new era of better relations with the Arab and Muslim world. As proof of his good faith, Obama stuck to his 'settlement freeze' that was naturally applauded by Arab public opinion throughout the region. In fact, it became pivotal for promoting Obama's Middle East policy at a time that the Iranian nuclear threat loomed larger on the horizon. Administration officials, from the President on down, referred to the settlement freeze as tantamount to an American vital interest. No responsible Israeli prime minister, dependent on American support against Iran, wants to be in that foreign policy predicament!

Alas, the result was that Obama's overzealous move to rebuild American bridges throughout the Middle East, had hamstrung his desired goal of jump-starting the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, something urged incessantly by Arab leaders such as Jordan's King Abdullah and Egypt's President Mubarak. Moreover, the stalemate increased friction between Obama and Netanyahu. Coming at a time that Iran's nuclear clock was ticking down, Binyamin Netanyahu was on the horns of a dilemma that demanded a solution worthy of what Henry Kissinger called a 'constructive ambiguity'. By suspending housing permits in Judea& Samaria (West Bank) but announcing 900 housing units beyond the 1967 line in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, Netanyahu has placated Obama, and although angering Israeli right-wingers, he has kept his coalition government in one piece. On one hand, No to West Bank construction but Yes to Israeli building in East Jerusalem, which Israel does not consider to be part of the West Bank. ( Ironically, it is possible that Obama's pressure on Netanyahu, called 'terrible' by Likud cabinet minister Limor Livnat, may have actually aided the Israeli leader in galvanizing cabinet support for what can be described as his 'constructive' solution of suspending housing starts on the West Bank while preserving Israel's claim to Jerusalem as its undivided capital. For example, Benny Begin justified his support by saying Israel will revert to again building in the settlements after the ten months expire. But as the political adage says: 'Sometimes nothing is as permanent as temporary'. Indeed, it is tough to envisage that if a negotiating process with the Palestinians did get underway, that Israel could then renew settlement building.

President Mahmoud Abbas

The question now is whether the U.S., after praising Netanyahu's settlement freeze, with superlatives such as 'unprecedented, significant and substantial', will be able to sway President Abbas to return to peace talks with the Jewish state? This is the heart of the matter: after Abbas rejected an unprecedented peace offer from former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that included a power sharing arrangement for Jerusalem, something Netanyahu will not do, it appears that even the Palestinian 'moderates' will have a hard time climbing in off the limb. Their fall-back position, if pushed by the U.S. and Arab states could be, a return to the deal offered by Olmert. However, that is certainly not on Netanyahu's agenda.

As for Binyamin Netanyahu, it is fair to say that he surveyed the 'state of the nation' and charted a policy that puts Israel's vital interests above his 'Land of Israel' ideology. In so doing, the Prime Minister, 'first among equals' in the parliamentary system, consulted privately with Likud hardliners such as Benny Begin and Moshe Yaalon persuading them that it was vital to iron out any irritants in relations with Washington because one day, in the not too distant future, Israeli intelligence officials may seek an urgent meeting with Netanyahu to present irrefutable information that Iran is 'breaking-out' into nuclear weapons production. Make no mistake, Iran is the main event for Israel, the Palestinian impasse is a side-show. In such circumstances, an Israeli prime minister will try hard, as Netanyahu did for reaching a constructive solution. However in defending the building suspension, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has made clear: 'Israel will also reject pressure and go it alone when her vital security interests hang in the balance'.

David Essing

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