The Prime Minister’s Office took the rare step last Wednesday in Washington of sending out a message to reporters saying that an AFP story had erroneously attributed to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu comments he never made during a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
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In that meeting, according to what was put out by the PMO – and what was received by AFP – Netanyahu made clear to Clinton there was “no change in the cabinet decision [regarding the settlement construction moratorium], which is in effect until the end of September 2010.”
Based on that statement, an editor at AFP wrote a headline saying that Netanyahu told Clinton the moratorium would not be extended – a not illogical interpretation, but one which led to the PMO’s almost instant clarification.
All of which gives an indication of how delicate this particular issue is.
The fact is that the government decision that declared the 10-month
moratorium is set to expire at the end of the month, and that is what
Netanyahu told Clinton.
He did not tell her that the moratorium would not end, and he doesn’t
want anyone at this time putting words into his mouth. Indeed, the whole
Israeli policy toward the issue is to say nothing, not wanting to make
anything that could be deemed as a provocative statement that would
chase the Palestinians away from the negotiating table.
The statement the PMO put out about Netanyahu’s meeting with Clinton was
telling because it said that Netanyahu told the US secretary of state
that the government-mandated period for the moratorium would end.
He did not say, however, that new building would begin.
In the current reality where neither Netanyahu nor the Americans are
saying anything of substance on the matter, what is largely left is to
parse words, and that parsing – as well as recent historic precedent –
can lead one logically to the following conclusion: When the moratorium
expires on September 27, nothing overly dramatic will immediately
What is more likely is that the clock will strike midnight, the
government decision will terminate, the sun will come up and nothing
much will change on the ground. Netanyahu will not stand up and deliver
an impassioned speech about the right to build throughout Judea and
Samaria; he will not yell to the youth – as Ariel Sharon once did – to
go grab hilltops; a fleet of bulldozers will not be unleashed.
And then, a few days or maybe a few weeks later, reports will begin to
emerge of renewed building inside the large settlement blocs, in
communities like Ma’ale Adumim, Efrat and Beitar Ilit. Perhaps Peace Now
will discover – and throw a press conference to announce – the building
of a new school in Itamar, on the other side of the security fence.
Israel will not make any provocative statements about building, and when
some construction is discovered within guidelines that are likely being
worked out now between Netanyahu and the Obama Administration, the US
will not go ballistic. The Palestinians, moreover, will remain at the
negotiating table, not necessarily because they want to remain, but for
the same reason they came to the table in the first place: because US
President Barack Obama told them to.
By the Palestinians’ own admission, it was massive pressure from the US,
the Europeans and even some Arab countries that forced them to the
table, even though Israel did not – as they demanded – freeze all
building, even in Jerusalem.
That same pressure is likely to keep them at the table, despite a
certain degree of construction that will carry on after the end of the
The pressure from the US on the Palestinians to remain at the table may
even be greater than it was to get them there, simply because Obama –
who reaped political benefit from being seen for a couple days in
Washington as a Mideast peacemaker – will not allow the talks to implode
before the November 2 midterm elections.
On November 3, all bets may be off, but before that day it is difficult
to believe he will let the Palestinians bolt the talks because of a few
dozen houses in areas that everyone knows will remain in Israel under
Diplomacy, like life, is definitely not black and white. And this is where recent historic precedent comes into play.
Back in March, after the dust-up with US Vice President Joe Biden over
construction in Ramat Shlomo, and after Obama’s dressing down of
Netanyahu at the White House, there was great expectation that within a
matter of hours after returning to Israel from Washington, Jerusalem
would have to give the US clear answers to a number of demands.
Netanyahu’s inner cabinet, the forum known as the septet, met amid an
air of great drama and expectation, and a widespread feeling that if
Netanyahu did not give Obama the answers he wanted, US-relations would
be irreparably harmed.
The president reportedly demanded a construction freeze in east
Jerusalem for four months, an extension of the 10-month housing-start
moratorium, and an Israeli agreement to deal with substantive issues
during the indirect talks with the Palestinians.
The septet met, and then met again, and then took a break for the
Passover holidays, and then Mimouna, and Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut,
and – in the end – never did, at least publicly, give a response.
Time, and the lack of bombastic, provocative statements, took care of
things. That same dynamic will be employed here as well – at least that
appears to be Netanyahu’s hope.