Benjamin Netanyahu would have preferred to lose a finger or even his entire hand, than do without the screaming headlines decreeing renewed construction in Judea and Samaria and the fact he didn't capitulate to the Americans and Palestinians.
Capitulating to the settlers, who voted for him, is a much better option for the prime minister. Politically, Netanyahu needs the photos of the bulldozers and cement being poured in Ariel or in Beit El.
The prime minister can register a "mission accomplished" checkmark he couldn't go without. He proved, mostly to the rightist camp and to his coalition partners, that he's a man of his word, and that he didn't cave in and didn't change his mind about the date he set 10 months ago.
The headlines that Netanyahu worked so hard on attaining in recent weeks, while facing American and international pressure, are worth a political fortune. There was no way to convince the prime minister to extend the construction freeze that ended last night. He could have handled anything, aside from the words "caved in." Not again; not this time. Not after acting based on Washington's dictates for the past year and a half.
So this is the politics, and now we shall return to the diplomatic game, which is far from drawing to an end – in fact, it continues unabated, both in Israel and in the US. According to the signals received from Washington in recent days, the Administration understands the prime minister's political constraints and is willing to continue the contacts in full force in order to reach understandings.
White House officials don't like the celebrations in Judea and Samaria, but they realize that Netanyahu does not wish to rush into political suicide. For the time being, the contacts among all the parties continue.
Settler celebrations premature?Nobody in Israel, in the Palestinian Authority, and certainly in the US has any interest in ending the direct talks launched only a month ago. An end to the talks would mark a rapid return to the dark period where Israel again would find itself ostracized and isolated. Netanyahu understands both the political and diplomatic implications. Hence, he will attempt to continue the talks with the Americans and Palestinians and ultimately reach understandings. Abbas and Obama also need these talks, for their own reasons.
The scope of the pressure exerted on Abbas and his response to it are unclear. He may eventually collapse under Arab and domestic Palestinian pressure and announce that he's suspending the talks. The Arab League will convene in about a week and a half to discuss the renewed settlement construction. Until then, there is also the possibility that the Palestinians will suspend the talks, while continuing the efforts to secure a compromise via US mediation. The Americans are supposed to promise the Palestinians that even without an official freeze, the actual freeze on the ground will continue.
Senior government officials say that the real test will come when requests for new construction permits pile up on Netanyahu's and Ehud Barak's desks. At that point, Barak would be able to hold up new permits in Judea and Samaria, while Netanyahu continues to prevent east Jerusalem construction, as he did since the beginning of the year.
The settlers may have been celebrating Monday morning, yet if Netanyahu is serious about continuing the direct negotiations, they will quickly find out that with the exception of the hundreds of existing building permits, much time shall pass before Barak or Netanyahu sign new permits.