Analysis: Build now, freeze later: Netanyahu's preemptive 'entrance strategy'

The US realized its initial 'stop building' demand was not workable.

obama netanyahu bring it on 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
obama netanyahu bring it on 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
While in recent weeks diplomatic officials were saying that much of the discussions with the US regarding a settlement freeze revolved around an exit strategy - under what terms Israel would be allowed to renew construction in certain settlements - what they failed to mention was that what was also being discussed was an "entrance strategy." And, indeed, it was the entrance ramp into a settlement freeze that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office announced late Thursday evening. Yes, Israel will agree to a temporary moratorium - the first such moratorium since then-prime minister Menachem Begin was holding talks at Camp David in the late 1970s. But before the moratorium, Israel will announce the approval of hundreds of new apartments that - together with the 2,500 units already being build in West Bank settlements - will provide for what Netanyahu calls normal life (and which the world has taken to calling "natural growth"). What the prime minister will do by first approving more units, before calling for a freeze whose length will be dependent on the normalization gestures to be promised by the Arab world, is to try to disarm his opponents on the Right who will accuse him of capitulation. Netanyahu took an important step toward taking the sting out of the opposition by bringing this plan to the inner cabinet late last month - a forum which includes right-wing ministers Moshe Ya'alon, Bennie Begin and Avigdor Lieberman. The inner cabinet, which in addition to Netanyahu also includes Ehud Barak and Dan Meridor, approved the move. Essentially, therefore, he neutralized opposition from his own ministers, something critical to entering into any agreement with the US that includes a settlement moratorium. Don't let the critical White House or State Department statements Friday fool you. It is obvious that Washington knew about these plans, and that Netanyahu didn't wake up Thursday night, a day after his top envoys met with US Mideast envoy George Mitchell in New York, and surprise everyone with this announcement. He reportedly briefed Mitchell on the idea during his visit two weeks ago to Europe. While precious little has been revealed over the months of intensive talks that have been held between the US and Israel on this matter, one thing is clear - they haven't only been talking about what the press has been reporting: the length of the moratorium, or the number of housing units that could continue to be built. This doesn't mean that the US likes the decision to approve new tenders, but Washington undoubtedly knew about it and most likely appreciated that it was politically critical for the prime minister if he was ever to agree to a moratorium. Netanyahu, who is sensitive to his relations with US President Barack Obama, was not going to surprise him with this type of announcement, especially since he himself felt blindsided by the US president in May when - without any forewarning - Obama called for an absolute settlement freeze during their first meeting in Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then spelled out what the president had in mind on May 28, declaring, "With respect to settlements, the president was very clear when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here. He wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. "We think it is in the best interests of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others. And we intend to press that point." To listen to Clinton was to think that the US would ensure that nary an Israeli shovel would crack Judean and Samarian earth. That was then. A little more than three months later, not only will settlement construction not cease, but before a temporary freeze is declared, some new units will be approved. That is not an insignificant change, and it is a change brought about by a number of factors. First of all, the initial US demand was completely impractical. It was impractical not only from a political point of view, since Netanyahu, in his government constellation, could not agree to such a demand, but also practically impossible - there is no way that real needs would not be provided for the nearly 300,000 Israelis living beyond the Green Line. Furthermore, the administration misread the Israeli public, thinking that the settlements were enormously unpopular, and that the public would back the US president. The administration confused headlines and certain columns in Haaretz with Israeli public opinion, a public that saw the US demand as unreasonable and rallied around Netanyahu. Secondly, it became clear with time that there had indeed been agreements with the Bush administration on where and how Israel could continue to build in the settlements, and that the Obama administration was simply tossing those out the window. This in turn led to criticism and some push-back, not only in Israel, but also in the US, with some asking how the Obama administration could call on Israel to fulfill its commitments, when it itself was not doing the same. Thirdly, it became clear as time went on that the US was a prisoner to its own demand. Netanyahu said he would not agree to a complete freeze, and that talk about stopping construction in east Jerusalem was completely out of the question, even as the Palestinians - taking their cue from the US's initial statement - threw in a condition that they never had when they were negotiating with Ehud Olmert: they would not start talks until there was a total settlement freeze everywhere. But with Israel standing firm that it would not freeze everything, the US had to decide whether it wanted to launch a process or not, and if it did, then it would have to agree to some construction. The fourth element that has led to a change in the US position was Saudi intransigence. Even as Washington was trying to get Israel to agree to a freeze, the Obama administration also tried to get the Arab world - especially Saudi Arabia - to ante up some significant confidence-building measures. Both Obama and Clinton were told in no uncertain terms by the Saudis that they would give nothing until there was an agreement. It then became impossible for the administration to come to Israel and say that in exchange for a settlement freeze, it would be getting some serious steps from the Saudis. The US was looking for the Saudis to help extricate the stalled "diplomatic bus" from the mud. But the Saudis, as usual, refused. Ironically, it is this inflexibility that has led - to a large extent - to the Obama administration becoming more flexible on Netanyahu's position that he can't stop all settlement construction.