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Netanyahu Starts Crossing Rubicon

Barring Unforeseen Circumstances Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu Expected To Accept New Settlement Freeze Deal With U.S. In Order To Negotiate Peace Agreement With Palestinians

Angry Right Wing, Including Minority Of Likud Cabinet Ministers, Vow To Block Netanyahu But Unlikely To Bolt Government

Netanyahu, Bolstered By Obama's Political & Military Backing, Apparently Ready To Partition Land Of Israel For Two-State Solution

Binyamin Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)

 Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has signaled his readiness to accept a U.S. proposal to freeze building in West Bank settlements for another three months in return for U.S. political and security incentives. Although Netanyahu is facing fierce opposition from inside his own ruling Likud party and some of his Right-wing coalition partners, the Prime Minister is expected to win a narrow victory in the security cabinet. Analyst David Essing assesses the implications of Netanyahu's dramatic decision that is now expected to kick-start peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

 It appears to be another defining moment in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - unless a last minute hitch crops up that overturns Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's intention to extend the settlement freeze. Although U.S. President Barak Obama has referred to it as a done deal, Israeli officials and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have cautioned that not all the details have been finalized. But if Netanyahu does succeed in getting a narrow vote in the security cabinet, the door will be swung wide open for negotiations on a two-state solution and for the first time by a Likud leader. Netanyahu first went to the shore of the Rubicon by declaring his readiness for the two-state solution back in June 2009 - he will cross the Rubicon if he starts negotiating it. Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton have left little doubt they intend to act both judge and jury as to whether Netanyahu and Abbas are truly trying to reach the far shore. 

Ma'ale Adumim, West Bank

Why has Netanyahu, who was elected on his 'No Palestinian State' battle-cry, now agreed to the partition of the historical Land of Israel? Netanyahu learned, as have other Israeli prime ministers, what President Shimon Peres recently referred to as Israel's existential dependence on the U.S. The intense pressure on Israel by Obama, the UN and elsewhere combined with the existential threat posed by a nuclear Iran, has placed the Jewish state in an unenviable and precarious position.

Existential dependence combined with an existential threat to existence is a tough combination to ignore, particularly if the U.S. is willing to reduce the security and political perils with substantial aid. Just around the corner, is the Palestinian threat to seek UN Security Council recognition for a unilateral declaration of statehood. Could Netanyahu depend on an automatic American veto in the Security Council if he continued to balk at extending the settlement freeze, an issue that Obama views as a U.S. strategic interest from a regional perspective.

Mahmoud Abbas, Benyamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama(Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Make no mistake, it's not as if Netanyahu now views Mahmoud Abbas, who represents less than half of the entire Palestinian population, as a sincere peace partner who is willing to live in peace with a Jewish state. On the contrary. Abbas openly and vehemently declares he will never accept the idea of a Jewish state. First of all, Judaism is a religion and Jews are not a people and not entitled to the national self - determination he claims for the Palestinians. Second, Abbas recently let the cat out of the bag when he stated that Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would automatically negate the claim of the refugees to return to their former homes inside Israel.( Homes which they left or were forced to leave as a result of the Arab refusal to accept the UN's Palestine partition plan of 1947). But on the other hand, Netanyahu has declared, and no less vehemently, that eastern Jerusalem is part of Israel's undivided capital and not open for negotiation. These then are but two of the thorny issues to be addressed in the anticipated negotiations. But top of the agenda is reserved for the question of borders for a future Palestinian state to be founded in the West Bank and Gaza. And Netanyahu can be expected to contend that future Palestinian borders are a function of permanent security arrangements that will ensure that Palestine will not threaten the Jewish state in the future.

This includes a multi-layered network covering land and air as well as the potential for a new eastern front following the evacuation of U.S. forces from Iraq. American officials are quoted as saying that if borders can be agreed within the 90 day freeze then a renewal of building in settlements will no longer be an issue because the territory will have been delineated as either Israeli or Palestinian. In light of the complexity of the security arrangements, this appears to be well nigh impossible. Therefore, leading Likud critic Cabinet Minister Moshe Ya'alon, a former IDF Chief of Staff, points to what he calls 'the honey trap'. The U.S. has offered Israel a basket of enticements for a three month freeze that will in effect become permanent. Ya'alon argues that the Israeli PM will not be able to renew building after 90 days even if the talks go nowhere for fear of incurring U.S. and international condemnation. Ya'alon and a number of other Likud cabinet ministers and Knesset members believe there is no viable Palestinian peace partner and it is a big mistake, even for tactical reasons, to agree to another settlement freeze because it will lead 'down the slippery slope' to a Palestinian state that will threaten Israel's existence, (as once argued by Netanyahu himself). However, although Ya'alon will mount a rear guard action to try and block Netanyahu's decision on the additional freeze, no cabinet ministers are expected to resign, with the possible exception of Benny Begin.

Scaling the ramparts, a group of Likud back-benchers met immediately to voice their opposition and declared that Netanyahu did not command a majority for the freeze in the Likud Knesset caucus. Cabinet Minister Uzi Landau, although incensed over Netanyahu's step, said Avigdor Lieberman's party will not bolt the government over the new freeze but will act within the government to bar the PM from making any further concessions on the Land of Israel. If Right-wingers try to topple the Prime Minister by quitting the cabinet, Netanyahu has a fall back position of inviting Tzipi Livni and her Kadima party to join his government. Netanyahu's opponents also realize that even if the negotiations with the Palestinians do get underway, the monumental decisions on partitioning the Land of Israel have yet to be taken and it would be premature to resign at this stage. However, the settlers are on the warpath and can be counted on to exert all the pressure they can. For example, settler demonstrators immediately protested outside the home of Shas leader Eli Yishai after he announced that his party would abstain rather than vote against another settlement freeze.

If the freeze deal is approved by the government, Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor will win big in the 'peace camp'. Barak, has been taking flak inside Labor for not doing enough to advance the peace process and accused of acting as fig-leaf for Netanyahu's Right wing policies. In fact, Barak worked out a similar deal on the freeze with the U.S. last September, except for the additional 20 F-35 stealth aircraft. In essence, he paved the way for Netanyahu to get off the hook with Obama. Barak has now contended it would be totally irresponsible for the government to reject what he calls Netanyahu's 'most important security achievement'. Wary of settlers' charges that Barak leads him by the nose, the Prime Minister took his time and insisted, as the song goes: 'I did it my way!' 

So Netanyahu gets to keep on building in eastern Jerusalem, but within 'common sense' according to Barak. U.S. and international pressure on Israel will ease up for possibly three months, maybe some wind taken out of the sails of both Israel bashers and those waging the delegitimization campaign against the Jewish state. Moreover, the U.S. will not let up on Iran. All these factors have been linked in one way or another to the building in Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Netanyahu has decided that he is not willing to take the rap for a failed peace process with the Palestinians and its harmful impact on the Arab world, something that Obama contends impedes his effort to galvanize an Arab coalition against a nuclear Iran. These are immediate and substantial gains for Netanyahu in return for being tarred and feathered by his critics, including Likudniks, who charge another freeze is a minefield that will blow up in another three months, if not before then. The PM is known to keep his ear to the ground by conducting public opinion surveys and it is conceivable he sounded out Israeli sentiment this time as well. The question is how Israelis will rate his performance in extending the freeze on building in the settlements for another three months.

David Essing

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