Plain speaking

Time will tell if Israelis are right about having changed American minds.

maaleh adumim construction 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
maaleh adumim construction 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
According to one version, Harry S Truman said: "If you can't convince them, confuse them." This seems to be the political line taken by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the settlement issue. However, according to another source, what America's 33rd president actually said was: "It's plain hokum. If you can't convince 'em, confuse 'em. It's an old political trick. But this time it won't work." The policy of pressing ahead with settlement construction while planning to announce a temporary building freeze may seem disingenuous. On the other hand, the Arab-Israel conflict has not proven itself conducive to Truman-like plain speaking. EUROPE, AND increasingly Washington too, prefer the comfort of self-delusion about why this conflict is so hard to resolve. In the Orwellian world of peace-processing, those who adhere to the view that settlements are not the main obstacle to peace are committing thought crime. So plain speaking necessarily gives way to doublespeak. Washington wants Israelis to know that as reward for a settlement freeze, President Barack Obama will be less icy toward Netanyahu, and that Arab states on the margins of the conflict may reopen interest sections (that they should never have closed in the first place). Given such inducements, Netanyahu has decided to allow building now in progress to proceed on 2,500 units in Judea and Samaria; announce approval for the construction of hundreds of new units within existing settlements, or in areas immediately adjacent to settlement blocs. And around the time of his anticipated meeting with Mahmoud Abbas and Obama at the UN General Assembly later this month, Netanyahu will announce a building freeze - excluding metropolitan Jerusalem - of up to a year. Publicly, the White House has taken umbrage over Netanyahu's build-and-freeze scheme. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs declared that "the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion, and we urge that it stop." EU foreign ministers have tripped over each other to condemn Netanyahu's approach. In a parallel universe, meanwhile, Israeli officials are absolutely convinced that they have reached a tacit understanding with the administration. After months of wrangling, Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Yitzhak Molcho and Michael Herzog think they have just about persuaded the administration to drop its demands for a categorical settlement freeze everywhere over the Green Line first enunciated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on May 28. Supposedly, the White House has come to realize - despite the counsel of J Street, Peace Now, Haaretz and an assortment of big-name pundits for the Hebrew tabloids - that a total freeze is impractical; that the previous administration really did tell Israel that certain construction would be tolerated; that the US insistence on a freeze has frozen only the negotiations; and, finally, that Saudi Arabia will make no gestures to Israel that might contribute to creating a better environment for peacemaking. Time will tell if the Israelis are right about having changed American minds. TO GIVE Netanyahu his due, at his Bar-Ilan speech in June, he tried speaking plain about settlements and about the root causes of the conflict, but much of what he said was lost on his American and European audiences. The premier urged the Palestinian leadership to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of its own. Abbas said no. Netanyahu implored them to solve the Palestinian refugee issue outside Israel's borders. Abbas ignored him. The premier urged them to negotiate the establishment of a non-militarized Palestinian state. Abbas's advisers scorned the notion. Netanyahu also tried some plain speaking to the settlers, saying Israel did not want to rule over the Palestinians. Granted, it would have been better had he stated unequivocally that even a deal with the Palestinians he could live with would entail uprooting communities outside the settlement blocs. Yet given the constraints of our political system and the inhospitable political environment in Europe and in Washington, there is just so much plain speaking Netanyahu can usefully do. SO MAYBE the real problem, in this instance, is not that Netanyahu doesn't speak plainly, but that ears attached to closed minds - on the Israeli Right, at the EU and in Washington - have made it difficult for his words to strike a chord.