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Published in Pajamas Media titledBibi Freezes Construction?on april 27, 2010.

by Barry Rubin,

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declares a 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank at a press conference in his office in Jerusalem, November 25, 2009. UPI/Debbie Hill

Here’s a mystery: Why has the recent crisis in U.S.-Israel relations suddenly seemed to clear up?

Here’s an answer: A secret understanding between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama to stop construction in Jerusalem outside its 1967 borders for a while.

There hasn’t been — and won’t be — any public confirmation of such an understanding, yet it seems quite likely that this has happened. In effect, Netanyahu is saying: We are cooperating in every way possible, so how can you complain about us?

Behind this argument is an Israeli belief that Obama will now be able to see the difference between a cooperative Israel and an intransigent Palestinian Authority, which will block any progress on peace. Indeed, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas has already provided an example of that paradigm — he publicly stated that he wants a solution imposed from outside, not one negotiated with Israel and requiring any compromises or concessions on his part.

Netanyahu has taken another step which was more public. At times in the past, he has defined the next stage of talks as being more limited — not including, for example, a discussion on the future status of Jerusalem in any comprehensive peace agreement. The Israeli prime minister now says he is willing to discuss all issues.

But any freeze on Jerusalem won’t be made too explicit for a number of reasons. First, ever since the Oslo agreement was originally made in 1993, Israeli leaders have maintained that they interpret it as permitting construction on existing settlements and Jerusalem. For 17 years, the PA accepted this position. It never refused to talk on the basis that such construction was happening. Only when President Barack Obama raised the issue in 2009, it became apparent that the PA couldn’t be less militant than the American president.

Last October, the United States accepted a deal, with lavish praise for Obama, that construction would cease for nine months in the West Bank but would continue in Jerusalem. When the equivalent of a zoning commission announced during Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Jerusalem that a housing project had passed the fourth of seven steps and might be built in several years, this was blown up by the White House into a major insult.

In fact, the United States was going back on its own deal. Moreover, the PA decision to name a square in Ramallah after a PLO terrorist who had murdered two dozen Israeli civilians and an American citizen sparked no such outrage.

Netanyahu and his government wanted to defuse the conflict, but the prime minister is constrained politically. While his government is in fact — contrary to frequent Western media reports — a national unity coalition between his Likud Party and the main left party, Labour, he is also dependent on the parliamentary votes of smaller right-wing parties. They would be extremely angry about a freeze on Jerusalem construction and might withdraw their support.

It is interesting to note, by the way, that Netanyahu could not have made such an understanding with the United States without the support of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who leads the coalition’s third largest party.

Netanyahu still maintains Israel’s right to build anywhere in Jerusalem, but is stopping actual construction now in order to facilitate negotiations with the PA.

The apparent move leaves three key players to decide their response.

First, will the PA in fact now go to indirect negotiations, having lost all excuses for refusing to do so?

Second, how will Israeli right-wingers react to the decision, both in terms of demonstrations and pulling out of support for the coalition? Since Netanyahu will insist that there is no formal freeze, this could undermine their efforts, while a desire for good relations with the United States and knowledge that any freeze is temporary will build Israeli popular support for Netanyahu.

And third, will the United States show reciprocal appreciation for Netanyahu’s concessions, or will Washington soon be back with more complaints and demands? The freeze has about five months left to run. If there is no real movement on negotiations — and this is unlikely — Netanyahu will want to end it. Would this lead to another conflict or would an Obama administration, perhaps better educated in PA behavior and worried about the erosion of electoral support at home, accept it?

Even given all this, no progress on peace negotiations is likely given all the problems involved. One of these is the fact that almost half the territory the PA purports to represent is the Gaza Strip, ruled by the PA’s rival, Hamas, which is totally against any peace with Israel.

Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that any return to indirect negotiations would be celebrated, since this is a step backward. After all, the PA (and its original parent body the PLO) and Israel have been holding direct talks since 1993.

PS: Additional new information for my blog readers. Secretary of Defense Gates met Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and held a press conference afterward. A reporter asked, good question, whether this wasn’t designed to show the relationship was back to normal since such a press conference had never been held before. Obviously that was the intention.

To help the relationship, Gates added that no U.S. officer had said that Israel endangers American lives but merely that the lack of progress in the peace process was used as ammunition by U.S. enemies to mobilize support. Well, that’s better but do you really think that Hamas, Hizballah, al-Qaida, the Taliban, etc., etc., win over people who are saying: “Wow, if only there was progress in the peace process toward a two-state solution I wouldn’t be strapping on this suicide bomber’s belt? As I’ve said before, progress toward peace–as desirable as it is–will increase attacks by terrorists determined to sabotage it and who are angry at the United States for “betraying” their chance of wiping out Israel.

About the author:
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are “The Israel-Arab Reader” (seventh edition, Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of “The Truth about Syria” (Palgrave-Macmillan), and “The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East” (Wiley).

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