As Middle East talks commence here in Washington, President Obama is no doubt pressing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to renew the West Bank building freeze that is set to expire on September 26. Indeed, Eli Lake of the Washington Times calls Netanyahu’s agreement to this condition the key to the talks. And with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas threatening to leave the negotiations in the absence of a renewal of the construction moratorium, it’s difficult to disagree with Lake.
So, once again, the “peace talks” amount, essentially, to extracting a concession from Israel.
As Lake points out, however, one problem with Netanyahu making this particular concession is that it might well bring down his government. That’s because key elements of Netanyahu’s coalition have insisted that the constructive freeze end. Nor is it an anomaly that Israeli politics are constraining Netanyahu. A poll taken in July showed that a majority of Israelis favored an end to the freeze. And in the aftermath of the recent slaughter of Israelis by Palestinians on the West Bank, a new poll shows that two-thirds of Israelis want the freeze lifted.
It is fair to ask, what would Netanyahu receive in exchange for flouting Israeli public opinion and risking the collapse of his government?
Netanyahu would, I assume, gain the willingness of Abbas to remain at the table. But Abbas staying at the table just means he will seek more concessions. If pushed hard enough by Obama, Abbas might make some nice sounding utterances. Conceivably, these utterances might eventually take the form of promises. But even on the off-chance that the promises are sincere, Abbas will not be able to make good on them because, to a considerable extent, Hamas is the ruler on the ground. This doesn’t sound like much of a pay-off for Netanyahu.
At a more concrete level, the extension of the moratorium might prevent the outbreak of violence by Palestinians come the end of September. But, given Israel’s position of strength, there is little point in negotiating with a party whose demands for concessions are backed up by the threat of violence whenever the concession in question is withheld.
Finally, acceding to this concession might win Netanyahu the gratitude of President Obama. If so, the benefits to the Prime Minister, whom Obama plainly holds in contempt, and to Israel will endure for perhaps a month, or until Obama makes his next set of demands. Whichever comes first.
In short, Netanyahu should just say no. However, I agree with Lake’s suggestion that he instead might very well try to find some middle ground position — such as extending the freeze informally — that will keep his coalition together while pacifying Obama, or at least giving the U.S. president a fig leaf.
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