The following question shall not appear in the next history matriculation exam at Israeli high schools: Three politicians – Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu,
and Mahmoud Abbas –
painted themselves into a corner and didn’t know how to get out of it. Who will go down now? The answer: None of them. Not immediately, The only thing that would crumple is the small chance of advancing an Israeli-Palestinian deal.
Obama erred when he turned the settlement construction freeze from a respectable heart’s desire to an ultimate demand. He set a bar that the Palestinians cannot compromise on. He erred when he agreed to a 10-month framework, and he erred when ahead of the end of this period he openly demanded an extension.
In his latest declarations, Obama greatly minimized the Israeli prime minister’s room for maneuver. The president let Netanyahu choose between two options: Either a humiliating capitulation to American dictates, or a head-on confrontation with the US. Meanwhile, he did not advance by even an inch his declared goal: Securing a peace treaty within a year.
Netanyahu erred when he endorsed a time-limited freeze. The 10 months were a tough corner. From the first day of the freeze, it was clear that Netanyahu would have great trouble extracting himself from that corner. He also erred when he made binding statements about ending the freeze. By doing so, he turned the debate on extending the freeze from a policy dispute to a debate about character; his character.
Abbas erred when he delayed his consent to direct negotiations for a year. He erred when he allowed his fellow Palestinian leaders to turn the talks into a hostage in the hands of settlement construction. He gained short-term profit, because settlement construction is an issue which the world shows no understanding to and doesn’t accept. Yet the short-term profit is a long-term loss. An issue of secondary importance replaced issues that are fateful for the Palestinians.
Abbas also erred by resorting to doublespeak. When he speaks in English (to Jewish leaders in New York, for example,) he delivers speeches of peace; in Arabic he becomes impassionedly zealous.
The three leaders’ failure to draft an agreed-upon formula that would facilitate serious negotiations raises doubts about the purity of their intentions. Does Obama wish to advance a comprehensive deal, or does he prefer to pose as a preacher? What does he want to be, right or smart?
And what about Netanyahu’s priorities? What is he really thinking? Is it all about, as he claims in his speeches, promoting an agreement, or (as his critics claim) about preserving his coalition at any price? Or is it all about continuing the occupation and playing manipulative games only aimed at blaming the Palestinians for the failure? What kind of Israel does
he want, and what kind of Palestine?
And what does Abbas want? Is he seeking an agreement, with all the concessions this would entail, or is exaggerating the settlement construction issue his way of evading a decision?
Netanyahu has suggested that the construction freeze be replaced by what he refers to as “restrained construction.” Under the current state of affairs, this could be a reasonable proposal, as long as the restraint would be genuine. Building several hundred housing units a year won’t make a difference. The Israelis and Palestinians are facing much tougher and more meaningful problems and decisions.
Netanyahu could have afforded to capitulate had he received from the Americans something in exchange, which he could have presented to the public as an achievement. In this respect, the proposal to release Pollard was not a bad idea. It would have provided Netanyahu with a convenient way to get out of the corner he painted himself into. Likud officials would have taken great pleasure in it while forgetting about the construction. Yet the Americans, for reasons of their own, said no.