(photo credit: Associated Press)
It was a patently reluctant Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who, late last
November, announced a 10-month freeze on new building starts at settlements in
the West Bank.
Netanyahu was acting under intense US pressure to, almost
literally, give ground to the Palestinians. Only days earlier, Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton had made her views on all settlement activity
crystal-clear, declaring: “We would like to see everything ended
Ideally, from the American point of view, “everything” would
have included a freeze in all building everywhere beyond the pre-1967 lines,
including east Jerusalem, where Israel expanded its sovereignty after the Six
With an Israeli consensus behind him, including the opposition
Kadima, Netanyahu resisted the pressure for an east Jerusalem halt – although in
practice very little has been built even in Jewish post-1967 neighborhoods in
the wake of March’s Ramat Shlomo dispute. But despite his ideological commitment
to the settlement enterprise, he consented to the West Bank freeze, and his
government has genuinely maintained it, with the goal of drawing the Palestinian
Authority back to the negotiating table.
Now, however, the 10 months are
nearly up, and most, though not all, of the key figures in his government are
advocating a resumption of building from September 26 – the resumption Netanyahu
explicitly promised last November when he spoke of a “one-time, temporary”
IN TERMS of the peace talks that the freeze was supposed to
have enabled, little has changed since last November – far too little, in
Rather than capitalize on the unprecedented Israeli government
moratorium, enter direct talks, and make a serious effort to confront the
thorniest issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, PA President
Mahmoud Abbas allowed the months to slip by unutilized.
Obama administration peace envoy, George Mitchell, returned time and again to
the region, mediating bizarre “proximity” talks between two leaderships that are
located a short drive from one another, urging Abbas to enter a substantive
direct framework, but to no avail. Until Netanyahu and President Barack Obama
had their encouraging meeting at the White House earlier this month, Abbas may
have been under the understandable impression that the US administration was
going to continue to do his negotiating for him. Belatedly, he may now be
realizing that this is not the case.
As Mitchell himself would doubtless
acknowledge, Israeli-Palestinian peace will not be reached via indirect
negotiations involving a Palestinian leadership that cannot bring itself into
face-to-face contact with Israel.
Some 17 years of direct talks did not
yield a permanent accord – largely because Yasser Arafat chose not to make his
peace with Israel, and because Abbas has hitherto proved incapable of escaping
from his predecessor’s malevolent shadow – but that direct framework, with US
mediation, is the only realistic game in town.
The prime minister has
stressed repeatedly, as the months have gone fruitlessly by, his desire to enter
direct talks and tackle the core issues – “as early as next week,” he said again
a few days ago, at the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The Obama
administration is strongly encouraging Abbas to respond in
Unfortunately, the PA continues to drag its feet. And although
Abbas used his recent visit to Washington to air certain conciliatory
statements, including acknowledging the Jewish historical ties to Palestine, the
months of proximity talks have seen a continuation of the relentless
demonization and delegitimization of Israel in the PA’s own media – a process
that must be reversed by any Palestinian leadership genuinely seeking
Without grandiose statements, Netanyahu is capable of
focusing any new building in the West Bank in the months ahead on the settlement
blocs where Israel intends to expand its sovereignty under a permanent accord,
and to do so while maintaining the stability of his coalition.
is highly skeptical of Abbas’s peacemaking intentions. Unsurprisingly, Abbas is
deeply skeptical of Netanyahu’s. The Israeli prime minister, however, is ready
and willing to put such skepticism to the test, hoping to be proved wrong. It’s
long overdue for Abbas to do the same.