Netanyahu press conference 248.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Save the date: Sunday, September 26, 2010. That's the day that the significance of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's declaration of a "temporary settlement freeze" will become clear, because it's the first business day after it expires. If building in the communities of Judea and Samaria then commences on a significant scale, as Netanyahu promised in his public address, he and his cabinet colleagues from the Likud can still claim to be faithful to their own frequently expressed views regarding Israel's vital interests. If not, one will have to come to the conclusion that cowardice, not prudence, governs their decisions.
Those Likud members who will vote in the next party primaries should take note.
Despite Netanyahu's rhetoric about peace, the decision regarding a settlement freeze has nothing to do with peacemaking.
Netanyahu knew this even as he spoke. There never was a chance that Mahmoud Abbas or any Arab state would respond to the freeze with a move toward reconciliation or negotiations. The freeze is intended merely to discharge a supposed obligation toward the White House.
For precisely that reason, the freeze makes meaningful negotiations less likely and the prospect of peace more distant. A unilateral Israeli concession undertaken in response to American pressure, it encourages the Arab world to believe it can continue to rely on the US to squeeze concessions out of Israel without even acknowledging Israel's existence.
That's not a formula for peace.
ON THE other side of the balance, Netanyahu can point to one small step forward. A de facto freeze has been in effect ever since Netanyahu took office. Now, for the first time, the freeze has a putative ending point. To that limited extent, Netanyahu has adopted a policy in Judea and Samaria at variance with the administration's.
Two months ago I suggested in this space that the Obama administration would be happy to "negotiate" the terms of a freeze indefinitely, and that Israel had no choice but to put some distance between its policy and the administration's. I suggested that Netanyahu unilaterally declare a six-month freeze, simply to get it over with without straining US-Israel relations overmuch. Now, two months later, the end of the freeze is supposedly in sight.
Of course, while the Americans have endorsed the freeze, they haven't endorsed its ending. From their perspective there's plenty of time to pressure Israel to extend the freeze indefinitely on one excuse or another. A situation in which there are no meaningful peace negotiations but Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria slowly die on the vine is just fine with the administration, even if it is diametrically opposed to Israel's interests.
The critical question is whether all the backtracking Netanyahu has engaged in since he was elected, from nominally favoring a Palestinian state to declaring a freeze without any quid-pro-quo, advances Israel's interests. The coming 10 months are likely to demonstrate convincingly that they have had the opposite effect. It will be a big surprise if Abbas suddenly decides to negotiate, or Saudi Arabia decides to open an interest section in Tel Aviv.
This is especially true if Netanyahu brings to fruition the irresponsible policy of releasing a large number of Palestinian murderers in return for Gilad Schalit. These murderers will now supposedly include Marwan Barghouti, the great white hope of the minority of Israelis who still believe in a negotiated peace with the Palestinian Authority. Yet the consummation of this deal will bolster Hamas and Palestinian radicals generally.
Barghouti himself has said that one kidnapping has produced more results for the Palestinians than any number of negotiations. He is likely to prove a determined, dynamic leader willing and able - as Mahmoud Abbas is not - to mobilize Palestinian society for a third bout of warfare against Israel.
There has been much speculation that the freeze is some kind of Israeli payment for a stiffer American policy against Iran. This is hardly credible. The best strategy for limiting Iran's nuclear ambitions is to impose effective, long-term sanctions on it, and this strategy is every bit as much in America's interest as Israel's.
As for the US facilitating direct Israeli military action against Iran, such action is unlikely.
This may come as a surprise to ordinary Israeli citizens who have been fed for months off their government's posturing, but direct Israeli action against Iran is probably unwise. Iran has twice Israel's national product, 10 times its population and 70 times its territory. No matter how effective an initial strike against Iran's nuclear infrastructure would be, Israel might not win the long, bitter conventional war against Iran and its proxies that would ensue, and Netanyahu and his ministers must know it. There is thus little the US can do regarding Iran that would be worth paying for in terms of important Israeli interests.
So the prospects for peace and the outlook for Israel's interests are likely to be darker 10 months from now than they are today. That is the point when the Netanyahu government will have to make a fateful choice. It will have to point out what is obvious even now - that the freeze policy has made Arab-Israeli relations worse rather than better. It will have to take another, bolder step beyond the constraints of American policy and end the freeze. If it does not, it will have failed to justify its stewardship of Israel's affairs.
The writer heads the Israel Policy Center, whose mission includes reinforcing Israel's character as a Jewish, democratic state.
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