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.