Analysis: Aiming for a drama-free end to the freeze

PM's office takes rare step of telling reporters AFP story attributed to Netanyahu comments he never made during meeting with Clinton.

Netanyahu Clinton (photo credit: Moshe Milner GPO )
Netanyahu Clinton
(photo credit: Moshe Milner GPO )
The Prime Minister’s Office took the rare step last Wednesday in Washington of sending out a message to reporters saying that an AFP story had erroneously attributed to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu comments he never made during a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In that meeting, according to what was put out by the PMO – and what was received by AFP – Netanyahu made clear to Clinton there was “no change in the cabinet decision [regarding the settlement construction moratorium], which is in effect until the end of September 2010.”
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Based on that statement, an editor at AFP wrote a headline saying that Netanyahu told Clinton the moratorium would not be extended – a not illogical interpretation, but one which led to the PMO’s almost instant clarification.
All of which gives an indication of how delicate this particular issue is.
The fact is that the government decision that declared the 10-month moratorium is set to expire at the end of the month, and that is what Netanyahu told Clinton.
He did not tell her that the moratorium would not end, and he doesn’t want anyone at this time putting words into his mouth. Indeed, the whole Israeli policy toward the issue is to say nothing, not wanting to make anything that could be deemed as a provocative statement that would chase the Palestinians away from the negotiating table.
The statement the PMO put out about Netanyahu’s meeting with Clinton was telling because it said that Netanyahu told the US secretary of state that the government-mandated period for the moratorium would end.
He did not say, however, that new building would begin.
In the current reality where neither Netanyahu nor the Americans are saying anything of substance on the matter, what is largely left is to parse words, and that parsing – as well as recent historic precedent – can lead one logically to the following conclusion: When the moratorium expires on September 27, nothing overly dramatic will immediately transpire.
What is more likely is that the clock will strike midnight, the government decision will terminate, the sun will come up and nothing much will change on the ground. Netanyahu will not stand up and deliver an impassioned speech about the right to build throughout Judea and Samaria; he will not yell to the youth – as Ariel Sharon once did – to go grab hilltops; a fleet of bulldozers will not be unleashed.
And then, a few days or maybe a few weeks later, reports will begin to emerge of renewed building inside the large settlement blocs, in communities like Ma’ale Adumim, Efrat and Beitar Ilit. Perhaps Peace Now will discover – and throw a press conference to announce – the building of a new school in Itamar, on the other side of the security fence.
Israel will not make any provocative statements about building, and when some construction is discovered within guidelines that are likely being worked out now between Netanyahu and the Obama Administration, the US will not go ballistic. The Palestinians, moreover, will remain at the negotiating table, not necessarily because they want to remain, but for the same reason they came to the table in the first place: because US President Barack Obama told them to.
By the Palestinians’ own admission, it was massive pressure from the US, the Europeans and even some Arab countries that forced them to the table, even though Israel did not – as they demanded – freeze all building, even in Jerusalem.
That same pressure is likely to keep them at the table, despite a certain degree of construction that will carry on after the end of the moratorium.
The pressure from the US on the Palestinians to remain at the table may even be greater than it was to get them there, simply because Obama – who reaped political benefit from being seen for a couple days in Washington as a Mideast peacemaker – will not allow the talks to implode before the November 2 midterm elections.
On November 3, all bets may be off, but before that day it is difficult to believe he will let the Palestinians bolt the talks because of a few dozen houses in areas that everyone knows will remain in Israel under any agreement.
Diplomacy, like life, is definitely not black and white. And this is where recent historic precedent comes into play.
Back in March, after the dust-up with US Vice President Joe Biden over construction in Ramat Shlomo, and after Obama’s dressing down of Netanyahu at the White House, there was great expectation that within a matter of hours after returning to Israel from Washington, Jerusalem would have to give the US clear answers to a number of demands.
Netanyahu’s inner cabinet, the forum known as the septet, met amid an air of great drama and expectation, and a widespread feeling that if Netanyahu did not give Obama the answers he wanted, US-relations would be irreparably harmed.
The president reportedly demanded a construction freeze in east Jerusalem for four months, an extension of the 10-month housing-start moratorium, and an Israeli agreement to deal with substantive issues during the indirect talks with the Palestinians.
The septet met, and then met again, and then took a break for the Passover holidays, and then Mimouna, and Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut, and – in the end – never did, at least publicly, give a response.
Time, and the lack of bombastic, provocative statements, took care of things. That same dynamic will be employed here as well – at least that appears to be Netanyahu’s hope.