The Region: Israel and America: Neither surrender nor confrontation

Unlike withdrawing from territory or dismantling settlements, a construction freeze would be a reversible step.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
The US demands that Israel stop construction on settlements. If this doesn't happen, it hints at dire retaliation. If it agrees to this step, President Barack Obama promises great things. First, he claims this will bring dramatic progress toward Israel-Palestinian peace. That's rubbish. We know that yielding would be followed by Palestinian Authority demands for more unilateral concessions. PA leaders openly say their strategy is to let the West force Israel to give them everything they want without any change by them. We know the current PA leadership is both disinterested and incapable of making real peace. In addition, the US initiative is absurdly one-sided, without hint of reciprocity by the other side. Equally, the administration's brutal rhetoric denies previous US commitments have been made on this issue. This approach seems almost designed to convince Israelis that further unilateral concessions will continue to be unrewarded and Western commitments continue to be forgotten. Second, we are promised that if Israel gives in, Arab states will change their policies, becoming more conciliatory and more helpful on pressing Iran. This, too, is rubbish. Arab regimes have their own interests. They need the conflict; they view its solution to be an American problem. They've already make it clear that the US will get nothing from them for pressuring Israel into concessions except demands to press for more concessions. Third, we're promised that if construction on settlements is stopped, the West can act more effectively on Iran. But its already chosen a policy of engagement and concessions. There's no will or ability to increase sanctions, not to mention continuing opposition by Russia and China. So this, equally, is rubbish. Iran will make no deal, stall for time and correctly assess Western willpower as low. Of course, Iran wants to be regional hegemon. It sees having nuclear weapons as a plus whose political and economic costs are low. Most disgusting of all are honeyed claims by American and European officials - be they cynical or foolish - that such concessions are good for Israel, as it will help it make peace and greater security. In truth, they want it to make concessions for their own selfish interests. They believe it will make the radical Islamist threat go away at its expense. WHAT THEN is the reality? If construction on settlements ceases, Israel will get nothing. Arab states, the PA and West won't change policies. Iran will go merrily on toward nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, there's still a strong case for making a gesture for several reasons: • To avoid alienating the US government. Failing to resolve this issue means that the administration will blame its inevitable failures and certain lack of progress in the region on Israel for the next three, perhaps next seven, years. • By saying "no," Israel would play into the scapegoating game, letting everyone pretend that all would be fine if it only altered its behavior. American and European policymakers will claim the only reason they can't get peace, Arab cooperation, or an end to Iran's nuclear drive is because of Israel's behavior. • The issue is construction, not dismantling settlements or withdrawing from more land. While one might respond that will be the next demand, a partial "yes" now does not inhibit saying "no" on a bigger issue. • The first response, offering removal of outposts or roadblocks and asking for adherence to past promises, has failed. Up to a point, stalling is a good tactic. No matter how determined the US government is on this issue at present, months can go by in maneuverings. Crises and distractions will arise; the US administration might learn to understand reality better. TO ME the decisive factors are these: A single gesture must be made toward the new US administration as a "gift" to Obama to consolidate his personal commitment to Israel. The fact that this step is temporary, reversible and doesn't endanger lives makes it preferable to alternative actions. There is also a way to do it on Israel's terms: a temporary freeze on construction, not including Jerusalem and in a clear framework of what is expected in return, with the results to be judged solely by Israel. What are these conditions? Two could be continuing Western efforts to isolate Hamas, the end to official PA incitement to kill Israelis and wipe Israel off the map. Other conditions could be private, like evidence of a stronger Western effort against Iran's nuclear weapons' drive. If these things don't happen, Israel warns in advance that it would say: "We told you so. This experiment has failed" and return to construction. Such a move would provoke criticism that it could far more easily resist at costs lower than at present. It should be stressed that unlike withdrawing from territory or dismantling settlements, a construction freeze would be a reversible step. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu knows how far he can go without unraveling his coalition. By conditioning it as suggested here, he could more likely sell a limited concession to his cabinet. But what he should certainly avoid is alternative concessions to "protect" settlement construction more dangerous to lives and interests without solving the problem with the US. These could include going too far in loosening restrictions on the flow of goods into the Gaza Strip or dismantling needed roadblocks. Israel should respond flexibly on the construction issue but only in a way shaped by its own interests and far better appreciation of the situation in the Middle East.