The Horns of Bibi's Dilemma

As of 1977, the platform of the right-wing Likud Party in Israel was quite clear on the matter of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank: “The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is eternal and indisputable and is linked with the right to security and peace; therefore, Judaea and Samaria will not be handed to any foreign administration; between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.”

It would be understating the case to say that this policy has been quietly subject to revision and attrition over the past decade. Beginning in 1998 with the Wye River Memorandum, which saw a first-term Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hand over most of Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, to the then-nascent Palestinian Authority, and continuing into 2005 when Ariel Sharon brought off his unilateral disengagement plan from Gaza, dismantling the very settlements he had once encouraged, the establishment right in Israel has, through fits of ideological bluster and resignation, adopted a pragmatic position on the occupied territories, however difficult it may be for some to acknowledge the fact.

Last June, Netanyahu, now in his second administration, announced his acceptance of the two-state solution. Though grudging, overdue, and more or less forced by President Obama’s Cairo address a month earlier, the speech Netanyahu gave at Bar-Ilan University stood in marked contrast to the grumblings of a finance minister who not long before resigned from Sharon’s cabinet over the Gaza withdrawal. He’s also removed a record number of outposts and checkpoints in the West Bank, lending his tacit support to the enormous material strides made by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, another U.S-educated economist and in many ways Netanyahu’s natural interlocutor -- if only Fayyad were entitled to deal.

Chastened by his years out of power, but considerably wiser as a statesman, Netanyahu has publicly come around to espousing a doctrine of conservative conciliation, best articulated recently by Dov Weissglas, Sharon’s former legal adviser, in a New York Times article assessing Bibi’s capacity for peacemaking. “No one in the world agrees to Israel’s presence in a majority of the Judea and Samaria territories and the continued construction there,” Weissglas told the Times’ Ethan Bronner. “Israeli persistence will bring upon it diplomatic isolation, and this is something that Israel cannot afford.”

He was referring specifically to Netanyahu’s latest reversal, announced in early December, to impose a 10-month “freeze” on settlement construction in the West Bank, barring three thousand housing units still slated for completion -- an about-face arrived at after months of awkward bartering with the White House, during which period many premature obituaries of the Jerusalem-Washington “special relationship” were authored and Obama wound up with more egg on his face than altered facts on the ground. Small wonder, then, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chose to term Netanyahu’s alternative freeze proposal “unprecedented.” Close, but not quite. In keeping with the ideologue-turned-pragmatist tradition of Likudnik prime ministers, Netanyahu has only replicated Menachem Begin’s three-month construction pause during the 1979 peace talks with Anwar Sadat, the fruit of which was Jimmy Carter’s only foreign policy accomplishment, the Camp David Accords. And should Obama fail to wrangle a similarly historic agreement out of the Netanyahu program, he’ll have the ready-made excuse of Palestinian intransigence.

Abbas, who has lately threatened to resign the PA presidency despite the likelihood that this would incite a third intifada, categorically refused to renew peace talks with Israel unless all the cranes and cement mixers of East Jerusalem likewise fell silent. This sine qua non for preliminary negotiations seems especially extravagant in light of the recent disclosure that Abbas formerly ceded to Israel the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramot, Ramot Alon, Ramat Shlomo, Pisgat Ze'ev, Neve Ya'akov, Ma'alot Dafna, French Hill and Gilo (long a hotspot in the settlement debate) in a proposed border-drawing and land exchange kibitz with Tzipi Livni. Abbas implied in an interview with Haaretz last week that by not formally “declaring” a more comprehensive moratorium on construction but by simply carrying it out, Israel might skirt domestic upheaval, and Netanyahu acute political embarrassment. There was no chance of either happening.