News this week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seriously considering President Barack Obama’s request for an additional 60-day building freeze in return for several guarantees from the U.S. administration came as a surprise to many Israelis who had considered the West Bank building thaw a done deal.
To some, Netanyahu’s move was all the more surprising given the public’s mood since the freeze ended.
In a poll taken by Dahaf and announced on Israel’s Channel 2 on Sunday, 54 percent of respondents (all Jewish) said settlement building should be allowed to continue, compared to 39 percent who supported a renewed building moratorium. The remainder did not voice an opinion.
There has been a great deal of conjecture over why Netanyahu decided to consider the American initiative, which reportedly includes security guarantees and support for Israel during United Nations resolutions (see box). One rumor has it that Jonathan Pollard’s release will be part of the agreement.
“I don’t know what Netanyahu wants. I doubt if he knows what he wants to achieve,” said Yariv Openheimer, secretary general of Peace Now, which is opposed to settlement building. “But if the American government is ready to play a huge role in pushing both sides into action, I think Israelis are ready to hear what the Americans have to say.”
During his weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu indicated that Israel was too far into peace talks with the Palestinians to abandon them just yet.
Peace “is a vital interest to the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “We will quietly consider the situation and the complex reality away from the spotlights.”
But the spotlight is on Netanyahu, who for years vowed never to uproot a single settlement. Local newspapers have been jammed with op-eds debating Netanyahu’s — and Obama’s — motives and whether or not to trust the Americans.
In the paper Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today), Emunah Alon, a right-wing activist, bemoaned the “astonishing insistence on continuing to view territorial compromise as the only recipe for peace.” The Palestinian leadership, she said, “has not ceased reiterating that as far as it is concerned,” stopping construction is not an objective in its own right, “but a necessary means to the final objective: liberating the soil of Palestine, starting with Judea and Samaria.”
In the left-leaning Haaretz, Yoel Marcus said Obama feels emboldened to make gestures because of “Bibi’s psychological file,” an apparent dig at the state of the prime minister’s backbone. “It is clear why the Obama administration is making such efforts to meet Bibi halfway. At least to those in the Oval Office,” who have assessed that Netanyahu “is squeezable,” “a right-wing radical” and that “he is afraid to fall from power a second time.”
Others, like Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, give Netanyahu a great deal more credit. He says the prime minister isn’t overly worried about public opinion because the public usually comes around when they think a genuine peace deal is being offered.
“The public says, ‘Give us a good deal and we’ll do what you want,’ even when polls show otherwise.”
Another reason Netanyahu can afford another settlement freeze, Wolfsfeld said, “is because [most] Israelis don’t mind if the settlements are evacuated, depending on what Israel is getting in return. You can’t talk about the settlements without talking about in exchange for what.”
Though he does not discount the power of those in the right and left wing, “it’s the people in the middle who decide elections,” Wolfsfeld insisted. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s make a decent deal.’ They’ve been there before.”
Efraim Inbar, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University, also believes that Netanyahu has a clear agenda.
“I think Netanyahu is popular. He’s leading a very stable government that nobody really wants to leave anytime soon. The economy is doing very well compared to other parts of the Western world.”
Thanks to these things, Netanyahu “is displaying a certain willingness to make certain concession for peace without giving up the store.”
Like Wolfsfeld, Inbar thinks Obama was wrong to put such an emphasis on settlements.
“It was a very misguided policy to put settlements at the top of the agenda. Really, it’s a secondary issue.”
Inbar ticked off the “primary issues”: the status of Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and borders.
“Settlements must be the result of borders,” Inbar asserted.
Assuming Israel renews a settlement freeze, few people will be happier — and perhaps more surprised — than Peace Now’s Yariv Oppenheimer.
Well aware of the latest Dahaf poll, which showed that a majority of Israelis do not favor a continuation of the freeze, Oppenheimer is only guardedly optimistic that building will stop anytime soon.
“Almost 40 percent of those polled support a new freeze, and that’s not a small minority,” Oppenheimer said. “But I’m not underestimating this number. I think it’s bad news.”
Israelis, Oppenheimer said, considered the just-expired 10-month building moratorium ‘a kind of gesture, something Israel was forced into,” and were therefore “less than enthusiastic.” Furthermore, he said, the public has had less opportunity to hear left-wing points of view because the current Israeli government “is right-wing.”
“I think in some ways Israelis were brainwashed by settler supporters. You open the radio and hear right-wing Knesset member, the heads of [settlement] municipalities and people who bought homes in the territories. There aren’t enough voices that support a settlement freeze,” Oppenheimer said.
Oppenheimer acknowledged that even many moderate Israelis say building should not be restricted and partly attributed it to the fact that the previous freeze affected settlements throughout the West Bank.
“Including settlements like Ma’aleh Adumin and the Gush Etzion bloc made the support for action much less limited,” the Peace Now leader said, referring to settlements near Jerusalem that most Israelis currently say they would be unwilling to relinquish in a peace deal.
It remains to be seen which, if any, settlements will be affected by a future building freeze, but the very fact that one appears to be in the works continues to affect most of the 3,000 families and numerous institutions already frozen out for 10 months.
Even those who have resumed construction don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
“We’ve begun clearing out our building site for construction, but don’t know whether to start building,” said Mali Sztrigler, the director of Lev Binyamin, a school for disabled children in the settlement of Ofra.
Currently housed on the grounds of an old girls’ school that hasn’t been outfitted for people with special needs, the school had been ready to break ground just when the freeze began in November 2009.
Asked when construction on the school will begin, Sztrigler was noncommittal.
Obama’s Enticements For Bibi
According to the reports, President Obama, in exchange for a 60-day extension of the freeze on West Bank settlement building, is offering Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledges that the United States will:
n Not ask for additional extensions on the partial ban on settlement building, which expired Sept. 26;
n Commit to using the U.S. veto to prevent United Nations recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations fail to bear fruit;
n “Accept the legitimacy” of Israel’s security needs as defined by the Netanyahu government — understood as referring to Netanyahu’s demand for a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, in the eastern West Bank;
n Broker talks with neighboring Arab states on a “regional security structure” — a nod to Netanyahu’s desire for cooperation on confronting Iran;
n Enhance Israel’s security through the sale of a second squadron of state-of-the-art stealth F-35 fighters and space cooperation, including access to U.S. satellite early warning systems.
“I don’t know. All I know is that helping special-needs children shouldn’t be political,” Sztrigler said.