In May 2009, a couple of months after his inauguration and a few weeks after the
election of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, US President Barack Obama hosted
Netanyahu in the Oval Office and surprised him with a call for a settlement
freeze that stunned the prime minister and set their relationship off on the
Four years later, again just after his inauguration and
Netanyahu’s election, Obama will once more be meeting Netanyahu. This time,
however, the meeting will take place in Jerusalem, and it is a safe bet that the
president will not blindside the prime minister with another settlement freeze
Not because Obama doesn’t want a freeze, but because he might not
have to demand it.
If comments attributed to Netanyahu’s National
Security Council head Ya’acov Amidror in a Haaretz
report on Thursday are
correct – that Amidror believes settlement construction is badly hurting support
for Israel in the West – then the groundwork is being laid for some kind of
curtailment of settlement construction. Not a complete freeze, but some type of
According to Haaretz,
Amidror said recently in
private discussions that it was “impossible to explain” settlement construction
any place in the world, even in friendly countries like Germany or
“Construction in the settlements has become a diplomatic problem
and is causing Israel to lose support even among its friends in the West,” the article quoted him as saying.
Those comments were leaked just
hours after it was announced that he and Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzhak Molcho would
be going to the US next week to plan for Obama’s visit. Those types of comments,
that type of realization, is sure to be welcome in Washington, which is looking
for something from Jerusalem to dangle in front of the Palestinians and thereby
bring the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table.
Friday, before the announcement of the Obama meeting, The Jerusalem Post
reported that among the ideas being discussed as an incentive for the
Palestinians to resume negotiations was a settlement freeze outside of Jerusalem
and the main settlement blocs.
Although the Prime Minister’s Office
denied that Netanyahu was considering this move, it is gaining currency. One
official in the Prime Minister’s Office underlined that outgoing minister Dan
Meridor, who still has Netanyahu’s ear, publicly called for just such a policy
in an Israel Radio interview on Thursday.
According to Meridor, the world
questions Israel’s sincerity when it says it favors a two-state solution but
continues to build everywhere in the territories, even in areas most assume will
be part of a future Palestinian state. He said Israel should continue building
in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs – areas he said many in the world have
come to realize will remain a part of Israel – but not beyond those
One big question is whether this would be enough to get the
Palestinians back to the table.
While there are no guarantees, it is hard
to believe that if Netanyahu made such an offer, and Obama and his new Secretary
of State John Kerry pushed hard on Ramallah, PA President Mahmoud Abbas would
reject it. And one of the arguments likely to be used in prodding the
Palestinians is that a failure to accept the offer, a continued refusal to
reenter talks, could have negative repercussions on an already precarious
One element largely overlooked so far in the discussion about
Obama’s visit next month is that Jordan is also on the schedule. His itinerary
is telling: Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman, not – as would have been the case
prior to the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions and the fall of Hosni
Mubarak in Egypt – Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo.
With the region already
in flames – Egypt no longer a reliable US partner, and Syria in utter chaos –
stability in the Hashemite Kingdom and the survivability of King Abdullah II is
a crucial interest not only to Israel, but to the US.
announcement of Obama’s visit, most of the focus – understandably – was on
Israel. But his visit to Jordan – and the signal that sends of US support for
Abdullah – is not insignificant.
Much has already been said about how the
White House has already lowered expectations regarding any dramatic Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough with this trip. But the US, though it would obviously
welcome one, does not need a dramatic breakthrough.
Obama is not coming
looking for his Oslo moment.
Obama is coming in search of some kind of
motion, and it is important for him to create the impression that something,
anything, is moving.
If there is no such motion – if there is no
“political horizon” – then the concern is that West Bank could indeed explode,
spilling over and negatively impacting a Jordan already squeezed by Syrian
refugees pouring in from the north, and a restive Muslim Brotherhood simmering
“Watch Jordan,” one diplomatic official advised this
Obama’s itinerary links Israel, the West Bank
and Jordan together. If Netanyahu does offer Abbas something to bring him back
to the talks, and the US does push, Abbas will be hard-pressed to refuse,
especially when reminded that doing so could have dangerous consequences for
Jordan. And Abbas definitely does not have an interest in anything bad befalling