Instead of advancing the negotiations, Obama prompts both Abbas and Netanyahu to make pledges they would find difficult to retract. Abbas cannot be less zealous about Palestine than the US president. Netanyahu cannot portray himself as one who caved in to American pressure.
To paraphrase Mao Zedong’s ancient dictum, Obama is trying to prove that a thousand-mile journey can start with one failed step.
Construction in Judea and Samaria will not kill Obama and its cessation will not save him. He has other troubles. Yet it presents Netanyahu with a complex challenge. This is not a fundamental matter, as the number of apartments that will be built or not built will change nothing fundamental on the ground. There is no ideological issue here either, with the government endorsing the two-state solution.
We are dealing with a classical dilemma here, illustrated by a well-known Israeli story about Morduch the fisherman and his flashlight. “Throw the flashlight into the water,” his friends urge him. “Let’s see if you’ve got character.” Morduch debates, and eventually hurls the flashlight into the water. “You’ve got no character,” his friends say. “Anybody can influence you.”
Should Netanyahu continue the freeze, he will be accused of having no character – he caved in to America pressure. Yet should Netanyahu resume the construction, he will also be accused of having no character – he instigated a damaging confrontation with the US Administration just to prove that he has character, thereby putting an end to the talks he so much wanted.
And he’s doing it with the least convenient issue for Israel. On any other issue – demilitarization, right of return, territorial tradeoffs, Jerusalem – America and Europe show a willingness to listen to Israel’s positions. Yet the resumption of construction is the kind of merchandize that virtually nobody wants to buy out there. At best, it is interpreted as capitulation to a radical Israeli minority. At worst, it is interpreted as a colonialist conspiracy. What’s the logic of new construction, everyone will ask, when you’re negotiating an evacuation?
The resumption of construction is a huge reward for Abbas – it’s his getaway path. He doesn’t deserve this prize.
The recognition trick
What we need here is something that Netanyahu has tried to avoid in his second term in office: an unequivocal decision that will leave many unsatisfied people in its wake.
Assuming Netanyahu is not ready for such decision, he can attempt to come up with a Mapai-like solution. He can set up a ministerial committee that would reexamine the settlement policy in Judea and Samaria. Construction will not be resumed until the committee submits its conclusions. The PM can adopt Minister Michael Eitan’s proposal from Sunday and break the issue into two: The freeze will be separated from the resumption of construction. The freeze shall end, yet the resumption would not start before another government debate and decision.
Netanyahu can declare that the freeze is over, yet quietly promise to the Americans that the government’s arms would make sure to delay construction in practice.
Such tricks are not something to be proud of. However, the alternative – losing the battle over responsibility for the talks’ failure even before they started – is not much lovelier.
Based on what Netanyahu said Sunday at the opening of the government session, it appears he chose a different option: Turning the demand for recognizing Israel as the Jewish people’s state into the main issue, thereby pushing Abbas into a corner. While Abbas will speak about the freeze, Netanyahu shall talk recognition. Both of them will refuse, and a balance of guilt will be created.
The problem with this trick is that it’s too transparent and cheap. Every Israeli expects that an agreement, assuming there is one, would declare an end to the conflict and the settlement of Palestinian (and also Arab League) demands of Israel. Yet woe is on a State that expects another people to recognize its ethnic identity. This isn’t Zionistic. It isn’t Israeli. It’s hopeless. The time has come to remove the conflict from the zero-sum game that accompanies it, Netanyahu said during his Washington visit. Not everything that’s bad for the Palestinians is good for Israel, and vice verse. Yet a few days passed, and he’s back to playing the same old game.
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