Diplomacy: Gaining grace?

Diplomacy Gaining grace

Netanyahu press conference 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Netanyahu press conference 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Yossi Beilin - former MK, minister and one of the architects of the Oslo accords - was downright prophetic nine days ago when he accepted a French honor from visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. Within a few days, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will declare a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction that would not include Jerusalem and would make exceptions for "normal life" in the settlements, Beilin said in his remarks, breaking the formula of banal acceptance speeches and getting the reporters in the audience to take up their pens. The US, Beilin continued, would say that this was not everything they had asked and hoped for, but that it was enough to resume Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. And the Palestinians, Beilin prophesized, would reject the deal. Beilin never revealed his sources, but within a week, his scenario played itself out. Netanyahu, after a four-hour discussion in the security cabinet Wednesday in which he artfully managed to bring his right wing on board for a moratorium on new settlement starts, stood in front of the cameras and said exactly what Beilin had said he would say. The US, too, followed Beilin's script, with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell saying soon after Netanyahu's declaration that while the moratorium fell "short of a full freeze, we believe the steps announced by the prime minister are significant and could have substantial impact on the ground. For the first time ever, an Israeli government will stop housing approvals and all construction of housing units and related infrastructure in West Bank settlements. That's a positive development." He went on to encourage the Palestinians to resume negotiations, as did US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And, as Beilin predicted, the Palestinians rejected Netanyahu's moratorium as "too little." In fact, PA negotiator Saeb Erekat called in his rejection to the AFP even before Netanyahu made his statement. "This is not a complete freeze of settlement construction, because Israel will continue to build 3,000 housing units in the West Bank and won't stop the work in Jerusalem," he said. And Nabil Abu Rudaineh, a spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said the PA would resume peace talks only after Israel completely stopped all construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Beilin, in short, went three for three in his predictions. But then he made a fourth prediction, that the Palestinian refusal to resume negotiations under these terms would create a "dangerous vacuum" that would trigger a chain of events that could very well lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. IT WILL, obviously, take some time to see if this forecast will come true as well. And in the meantime, there will be those who will attack Netanyahu from the left, saying that had he truly wanted to put his shoulder to an international effort that could be called "Saving Private Abbas," he would have suspended all construction under way in the West Bank as well as building in Jerusalem. Netanyahu has made clear that he is interested in supporting Abbas, but this is only one of myriad objectives he has in mind. The prime objective of his settlement-start moratorium was to get the burden of being blamed for stalling the diplomatic process off of Israel's back. Netanyahu said as much in a private conversation he held immediately after making his statement. "Now all the Palestinian excuses are over," he said. "The ball is in Abbas's court, and he has to take the courageous decision of a leader." Well, not exactly - at least the part about the Palestinian excuses being over. The Palestinians, as Erekat already proved, will continue to say that Netanyahu's gesture is empty because the suspension does not include Jerusalem or the 3,000 units already being built. BUT WHAT is even more important from Netanyahu's point of view is that the Americans - as evidenced by Mitchell's statement - don't see the step as hollow. When US President Barack Obama took office in January, he called on Israel to freeze all settlement construction, the Palestinians to resume negotiations and end violence and incitement, and the Arab countries to make normalization gestures. On Wednesday night, Israel made the first move, partial as it may be in Obama's eyes. And by making that move, Netanyahu went further than he had indicated he would go just a few months earlier. In the beginning of September, just prior to what seemed, at the time, a critical visit here by Mitchell, Netanyahu's office announced the approval of some 500 new housing starts beyond the Green Line that would be followed by a declaration of a building moratorium if "conditions are right" - meaning if the PA put an end to incitement against Israel in the media and education system, and if, more importantly, the Arab states were forthcoming with normalization gestures. The normalization gestures never materialized, nor did the PA media or schools change their tones, but Netanyahu decided to act unilaterally in order - according to sources in his office - to place the onus of responsibility squarely on the Palestinians. The moratorium was never meant to be a unilateral step, but ended up being one because no one moved on the other side. The expectation is that this will now be appreciated in Washington. The move was also made, one source said, to begin getting some kind of diplomatic credit for a moratorium that - with the exception of the bundle of houses approved in September - has been in effect since August 2008. Indeed, since that date, neither the Olmert government nor the Netanyahu administration, which took over in March 2009, approved any new housing beyond the Green Line except for the 500 approved in September. Wednesday's announcement, one official explained, was an effort to begin scoring diplomatic points for something that had de facto been taking place on the ground for months. Despite efforts to turn up the drama by calling a "press conference" Wednesday to announce the move (no questions were taken), the parameters of the moratorium have been known for months, and the only unknown element was both the length of the moratorium and the timing. One official said that the original plan - dashed by the unsuccessful summit in New York in September between Netanyahu, Obama and Abbas - had been that the moratorium declaration would be made when a relaunch of the negotiations was announced. When no progress was made on that front, Netanyahu decided to take a unilateral step. Netanyahu hopes that this step, one that Mitchell applauded as historic, will bury lingering international skepticism as to his intentions. He told German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle this week that he was "uniquely positioned," as a right-wing prime minister, to galvanize the support of the public to a "historic agreement with the Palestinians." This unique positioning became evident when he was able to convince right-wing ministers like Bennie Begin, Moshe Ya'alon and Avigdor Lieberman to vote for the moratorium, something done because - one government source said - they had sat in the discussions over the last few months and seen what was initially demanded, what was agreed upon, and the whole array of pressures coming to bear on Netanyahu and the country. THE DECISION was also another step in Netanyahu's efforts to convince the international community of his seriousness as a "peace partner." Soon after being elected, the major question on the agenda was whether Netanyahu would accept the idea of a Palestinian sate. Netanyahu went to Bar-Ilan University and gave a speech that signaled his acceptance of the idea, with caveats. The caveats were heavy - the state must be demilitarized, the Palestinians must accept Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people - but the underlining acceptance of a Palestinian state was there. The moratorium decision was made of the same cloth. Netanyahu addressed an issue - the settlements - very much on the agenda, gave some concessions, but didn't give the Palestinians everything they wanted. Still, he gave something. Netanyahu is now gambling that as a result of what he gave, the world will press the Palestinians to take the gestures and run with them. If the Palestinians don't do so, Netanyahu seems to be assuming, it will be clear who will get the blame. But considering recent history, that seems a somewhat risky assumption. Back in 2000, at Camp David and then at Taba, then-prime minister Ehud Barak justified his generous offer to the Palestinians by saying that if they accepted it, there would be peace, and if not, then the world would see who should be blamed for the failure and what came after. The Palestinians rejected the offer, the second intifada ensued, and Israel got slammed in the international arena. Same with disengagement in 2005. Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon said that following the complete withdrawal from Gaza, Israel would have international legitimacy to take very tough military measures inside Gaza if the rockets continued to fall. The rockets continued to fall, Israel took intensive military actions, and its position in the world has rarely been as difficult. BY MAKING his moratorium declaration, Netanyahu is hoping to remove a major irritant in relations with the US, so that the time and energy devoted to this issue can be placed on other matters. "The US position on settlements has not changed, but won't be a constant source of tension," a senior source said. "Now we can think about other things. This is the most sweeping step that Israel can take to help launch the negotiations. If they are launched, good; but if not, Israel basically has done everything, and it will be very difficult to come and blame Israel for the stagnation." Difficult, but not impossible. Especially if, in the process and as Beilin predicted, the PA falls. Wednesday's move may have bought Netanyahu some temporary grace in Washington and the international community, but that grace - judging by other unilateral steps Israel has taken in the past - may prove fleeting.