Analysis: The settlement freeze 'exit strategy'

How to maintain that credibility is among the issues that US and Israeli officials are discussing.

great natural growth settlements 248.88 (photo credit: )
great natural growth settlements 248.88
(photo credit: )
While the primary focus in the settlement construction dispute between Israel and the US over the last few weeks has been the nature of a possible freeze - what it would entail and how long it would last - a different point of contention has emerged in recent talks with the US: how will the freeze end, and what will be the conditions for renewed construction once it does. Defense Minister Ehud Barak was quoted recently as saying that even if Israel did agree to some type of freeze, "it can't keep its head underwater forever." In other words, the feeling in Jerusalem is that it is both unreasonable and unrealistic to expect Israel to maintain a complete freeze - which it may agree to for a few months in order to enable the re-launch of negotiations with the Palestinians - until a final status agreement is reached. Negotiations over a final status agreement with the Palestinians could take years, and Israel has made it clear it will not agree to dry up and strangle communities such as Ma'aleh Adumim, Betar Ilit and others in the interim. As a result, a major issue that has emerged in talks between Israel and the US has to do with what the US would allow Israel to build - how much, and where - once the temporary freeze ended. This is what Israeli officials have begun to refer to as the search for an "exit strategy." The discussion about the exit strategy has brought into focus the different ways in which the Israeli and US governments view the current situation. While Israel is skeptical of a final status agreement being reached, and at least very skeptical it could be reached any time soon, there are those in the Obama administration who have been described as still believing that a deal is just around the corner. If one, indeed, believes a deal is out there just waiting to be made, ripe for the plucking, then renewal of settlement construction could wait, since it won't take that long for a deal to be made, and all the settlement issues will be dealt with during the negotiations. For instance, if it is agreed that the large settlement blocs close to the Green Line will be retained by Israel, in a land exchange with the Palestinians, then the issue of building in those settlements that would eventually become a part of Israel would become moot. But on the other hand if there is great skepticism about the possibility of reaching a deal, then how to renew settlement construction once a temporary moratorium is over becomes a key issue. The US administration, obviously, has shown itself to be less concerned about an "exit strategy" than Israel is. There is also the political element involved. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will have to sell a temporary freeze to his coalition partners and would have an easier time doing it if he was able to show them that at the end of the day the US would allow at least some defined settlement activity. In a perfect world, what Israel would like to see would be for US President Barack Obama to agree to the understandings on settlement construction that were in effect during the Bush administration: namely that Israel would be allowed to build inside the construction lines in the settlements, but not beyond them. In other words, build up in the settlements for natural growth, but not out and encroach on Palestinian land. The problem is that Obama, who publicly made a total settlement freeze a key part of the US's recalibrated Middle East policy, will find it difficult to backtrack from this without harming his credibility in the Arab world. And how to maintain that credibility is, along with the exit strategy, among the issues that US and Israeli officials are continuing to discuss.