Analysis: Getting the PA back to the table

With Obama set to visit, the Israeli PM could be readying a curtailment of settlement construction of his own initiative.

PALESTINIAN builds a home in Ma’aleh Adumim 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci )
PALESTINIAN builds a home in Ma’aleh Adumim 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci )
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 wrong foot.
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 demand.
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 construction slow-down.
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 Canada.
“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.
Last 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 areas.
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 Jordan.
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.
Following the 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 inside.
“Watch Jordan,” one diplomatic official advised this week.
Good advice.
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 Abdullah.