Analysis: Can a settlement freeze thaw the rifts?

Analysis Can a settleme

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
November 26, 2009 03:33
3 minute read.

 
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The security cabinet's decision to freeze settlement construction for 10 months was aimed at thawing three relationships that had grown cold: Israel's with the US government, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Likud's with Labor. And ultimately, like any decision Netanyahu makes, its real goal is preventing the nuclearization of Iran. Netanyahu made no effort to hide who his target was when he announced the freeze. The security cabinet, which normally meets in the morning, was purposely convened in the afternoon Israel time, when the White House would be working. Netanyahu made a point of reading his statement in English. And US President Barack Obama's Middle East mediator, George Mitchell, responded immediately. Obama and Netanyahu discussed the freeze when they met two weeks ago at the White House. It could have been announced last week were it not for the American uproar over the approval of new construction in Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood. The criticism of construction in a consensus neighborhood in Jerusalem highlighted how far apart the Obama administration's thinking is from that of Netanyahu's government and of mainstream Israelis. But it also helped Netanyahu, who can now say that he may be limiting construction in the West Bank, but he has refused to back down in the capital. Freezing construction in Judea and Samaria was a huge step for Netanyahu, Minister-without-portfolio Bennie Begin, Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. But in the Obama administration's eyes, even that is insufficient. The same goes with Abbas. He will not be satisfied that there is no construction in Efrat and Ma'aleh Adumim if Israel is still building in Gilo, Arnona, and Ramot. So if Obama and Abbas are insatiable, why announce a settlement freeze? The answer lies with rift number three. The man who gained most from the freeze was Labor chairman Ehud Barak, who went on the most-watched nightly news on Channel 2 and told anchor Yonit Levy that the freeze never would have happened had Labor not joined the government. This was a bad week for Barak, who saw his chief of staff quit and pressure increase on politicians to release their financial records. The freeze was an important shot in the arm for the minister of defense. Netanyahu needed Barak to be strengthened, because Labor is the weakest partner in his coalition. Momentum was growing in Labor for Barak to agree to advance a party leadership race in order to prevent a split. There were only two months left in MK Daniel Ben-Simon's ultimatum for changes to take place in the peace process before he would give the Labor rebels the fifth vote they need to legally split the party, a move that could result in Labor leaving the coalition. Ben-Simon reportedly called the freeze "the most important decision that was made about settlements since 1993." Asked how it would impact his decision on whether to facilitate a split, he said, "I conditioned forming the new movement on what is going on in the field, and now something very important is happening." So Obama might still be hungry and Abbas unimpressed, but at least Ben-Simon is happy. That brings us back to Iran. Keeping the United States content with Israel is important, because Israel wants the Obama administration to persuade the world to shift next month from the diplomatic approach to the economic approach to prevent Iran's nuclearization. Strengthening relative moderates in the Middle East, which Abbas is perceived to be, also helps the efforts against the extremists in Iran. But from Netanyahu's perspective, keeping Barak in his government is just as important in the effort to stop Iran. Netanyahu values Barak's military experience and trusts him, and the prime minister is strong enough to take a political risk with the freeze to give Barak a needed boost. So even if the freeze does not thaw relations with Obama or ignite talks with Abbas, if Barak's departure is put on ice, for Netanyahu, everything's cool.

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