Analysis: Washington over Wallerstein

Analysis Washington ove

Binyamin Netanyahu must have felt himself being torn apart. He had always evinced an ideological commitment to the growth of the settlement enterprise as a prime national interest. But this most America-sensitive of our prime ministers also fully appreciated the irreplaceable strategic value of the US-Israel relationship. And US President Barack Obama, without being so indelicate as to put it in quite such stark terms, was essentially requiring him to make a choice of sorts between the two. The president, leading a hitherto unsuccessful effort to pressure Iran into halting its nuclear weapons drive, was emphatically of the opinion that Israel needed to call a settlement freeze in order to generate Middle Eastern goodwill - goodwill for Arab states to bolster international leverage against Teheran, and goodwill for some of those same Arab states to begin the process of normalizing their ties with Israel. The Palestinian Authority, under Mahmoud Abbas, was refusing to so much as return to the negotiating table unless or until building came to a halt in Judea and Samaria. And Abbas, though no ideal partner himself, was about to lose even more popularity to the extremists of Hamas, as Israel and the Islamists neared a massively asymmetrical deal for the release of Palestinian prisoners, unrepentant terrorists among them, in exchange for Gilad Schalit. The prime minister may doubt Obama's capacity and will to galvanize sufficient international pressure to force an Iranian nuclear climbdown. He may not believe for a moment that a settlement freeze will have any impact whatsoever on Arab states' attitudes to Iran. He may be skeptical that a settlement freeze will prompt significant progress on Arab normalization with Israel. And he may feel aggrieved that the US's own public demands for the freeze created the climate in which Abbas was unwilling to negotiate - unwilling, that is, to be more forgiving of Israel than its own US ally. But forced to decide between the demonstrative maintenance of construction, prompting a real crisis in ties with Washington and exacerbating Israel's accelerating international isolation, on the one hand, and a moratorium that would infuriate Pinhas Wallerstein's Council of Jewish Communities and others on the Israeli Right while placing the negotiating ball firmly in the Palestinian and Arab court, on the other, Netanyahu on Wednesday made his choice. His bitter, almost apologetic choice. Last week's hyped headlines about new building in Gilo marked a final public act of semi-defiance - a case of Israel signaling that, where Jewish neighborhoods over the Green Line but inside Jerusalem were concerned, it would not bow to US dictates. But outside the city limits, the prime minister has, very reluctantly, now given Washington most of what it wanted. For all that goes on behind closed doors, public events like the prime minister's Wednesday evening announcement often yield real insights into our leaders' thinking. And whereas, at Bar-Ilan University five months ago, it was an upbeat, confident, commanding Netanyahu who offered his dramatic endorsement of Palestinian statehood, it was an unhappy, almost battered prime minister we saw on Wednesday night, accepting Obama's formula for progress toward that state. Netanyahu acknowledged that the freeze was "not easy," that "it was a very difficult step for me." And while he urged the Palestinian leadership, and the wider Arab world to "take the opportunity" to now move toward a full and final resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict - and presumably the US is now trying to twist Arab arms as firmly as it twisted his - the prime minister's closing remarks spoke volumes about his expectations. When the 10-month freeze was over, he said, previous construction policies would be resumed. Not might, but would. Yet even that sentence was said without too much conviction. Because an awful lot can happen in 10 months - in the Schalit saga, in the Abbas-Hamas rivalry, in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, in the face-off against Iran. And, of course, if the Americans feel that a second period of suspension would further US and Israeli interests, they could always press Netanyahu to hold back the bulldozers a while longer. After all, in what the prime minister defined as the wider "mix of national interests," he has set his dramatic precedent.