Israel is abuzz with talk of President Obama’s upcoming visit – his first trip to the Jewish state as president. Speculation is rife that he would not put his prestige on the line in this manner unless he was confident his pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu would bear fruit.
What precisely will Obama be pressuring Netanyahu to do? For starters, he will want to see a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. One might ask why Netanyahu would have to be pressured to talk with the PA, when he has been calling for exactly that ever since he assumed office in 2009.
Here is where current events are actually shaped by their perception and bias. Though the P.A. is the party that refuses to come to the table, the popular understanding is that this is Israel’s fault. The P.A. repeatedly declares that talks cannot begin unless Israel freezes all construction throughout all of Judea and Samaria (Yesha) – and even the areas of Jerusalem liberated in the Six-Day War.
Chief P.A. negotiator Saeb Erekat even went so far as to say a construction freeze is not a “condition” for a resumption of negotiations, but rather “obligations that Israel is required to fulfill” even without talks.
Thus, those who are predisposed to the Arab narrative are quick to conclude that if Israel is not meeting the P.A.’s demands – it must be Israel’s fault.
Left unmentioned in the popular discourse is the “been there, done that” aspect: In late 2009, Israel declared a ten-month construction freeze, exactly for the purpose of jump-starting talks with the P.A. “We hope this decision will help launch meaningful peace negotiations,” Netanyahu declared at the time. American officials hailed the decision as “substantial” and “unprecedented.”
But it wasn’t enough for the P.A. For nine months it refused to come to the table, even as Israel suffered economically and Netanyahu suffered politically from the freeze. The ten-month moratorium was not acceptable, the PLO said; it must be “infinite.”
Only in the last month of the freeze did the P.A. deign to resume negotiations. Its nearly exclusive demand was that the freeze must continue indefinitely – or else the fledgling talks would end even before they started.
Israel did not fall for the trap, ended the freeze as scheduled, and negotiations have been stuck right there ever since.
Yet when Obama comes to Israel next month and demands that the talks begin once again, to whom will the demand be addressed? To Israel, of course: Stop building those schools and houses immediately, and let the P.A. come to the table. And yes, that includes Ramat Eshkol, Gilo and other Jerusalem suburbs, as well as the settlement blocs – Abbas won’t have it any other way.
Hints that this is the unfolding scenario are evident from many quarters. The New York Times reported over the weekend that the Israeli government is considering a new settlement freeze, and prominent public figures have been quoted of late supporting exactly that, at least partially. Among them is outgoing Cabinet minister Dan Meridor (Likud), who said that Israel should restrict building beyond the Green Line to Jerusalem and major settlement blocs.
Similarly, National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, more on the hawkish end of Israel’s political spectrum, warned that continued Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria would lead to a deterioration in Israel’s international standing.
From Netanyahu’s office – not from Netanyahu himself – have come statements that a new settlement freeze is not on the table. During the election campaign, Netanyahu said as much many times, and even the #2 party in the soon-expected government coalition, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, said it objects to a building freeze during negotiations.
Nonetheless, Yesha leaders are far from relaxed, and with good reason. They know the very fact that a freeze is again being discussed so widely does not bode well.
Incidentally, the PLO Executive Committee has also announced that resumed talks are conditional on not only a “complete halt to settlement activities, including in East Jerusalem,” but also the release of all terrorist prisoners. And there’s more: Israel must also accept the recent U.N. resolution recognizing the P.A. as a non-member observer state.
The P.A. sees Obama’s visit as a great opportunity, “although we need deeds and real U.S. pressure on Israel rather than meetings,” said Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh. “We wish the U.S. administration will exert pressure on Israel to stop settlement expansion, in order to lay the ground for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territory within the borders before June 4, 1967.”