Benjamin Netanyahu Takes a Plunge… and Loses?

Border Crossings

This week, I've been pondering over the reported breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. There have been many moments in this sixty year-old conflict that seemed like they would climax in a denouement, but something would always fall apart in the last minute. The latest developments are unlikely to bring a speedy end to this territorial dispute, but they are worth mentioning for other reasons.

As I reported previously, the right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to freeze the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank for a period of ten months, during which Israel hopes to make headway in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.  The freeze would not affect Jewish settlements in the city of Jerusalem, nor would it apply to the so-called "natural growth," e.g., the construction of daycare centers and synagogues within the existing West Bank settlements to accommodate the needs of the growing population there. Some reports, which I quoted last time, mention that Israel plans to erect between 2,500 and 3,000 outstanding housing units prior to the freeze. 

Mr. Netanyahu's decision, reportedly backed by his entire cabinet, has been criticized harshly by conservative circles in Israeli society, who oppose any territorial concessions to the Palestinians. They said the move was at odds with the Prime Minister's platform—emphasized during last year's campaign—not to repeat the policy of his predecessor Ariel Sharon, who withdrew Jewish soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Given the immense opposition to the settlement freeze mounted by Netanyahu's conservative constituents, I was wondering what made him reverse his campaign stance, and how he was able to convince his party members to follow suit. The brief answer offered by the Israeli press (and repeated by newspapers in the U.S.) is that it was the Obama Administration that pushed Netanyahu's Likud Party to make this move, hoping that it would facilitate a peace deal with the Palestinians.

I was also wondering why Mr. Netanyahu thought that a temporary halt in the settlement construction might appeal to the Palestinians. As it turned out, there were other factors at play here.

Mr. Netanyahu has been under pressure at home to achieve a release of a Jewish soldier, Gilad Shalit, captured from his military base in 2006 by the militant groups associated with Hamas. In exchange for Shalit, Israel is said to have agreed to liberate about 450 high-profile Palestinian prisoners that include terrorists and suicide bombers. Understandably, the proposed swap has stirred up much controversy in Israel, with the public concerned that it would undermine the country's security and make Israelis vulnerable to future hostage-takers at home and abroad. While officials state that most of the ex-convicts would be forced into exile, the real implications of this decision for Israel's security are yet unknown. (As a side note, I am curious to know which countries would voluntarily accept the released prisoners on their soil?)

Some analysts argue that Mr. Netanyahu's deal with the Hamas would strengthen the latter and weaken Palestinian Authority's leader, Mahmoud Abbas. This may be why Mr. Netanyahu thinks that the settlement freeze may be a "face-saver" for Mr. Abbas now, if only for a limited time: it may enhance Mr. Abbas’s stature among the Arab states as a protector of Palestinian interests. Mr. Abbas is a moderate politician and appears to be Mr. Netanyahu's only hope at the moment for a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Other observers point out that Mr. Abbas's putative successor, Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the second intifada (armed anti-Jewish uprising), will be among the prisoners to be released by Israel, and that Mr. Abbas is eager to see that happen. Now, if that is true, Mr. Barghouti's ascent to a position of power within the Palestinian Authority stands to significantly modify the existing Palestinian-Israeli dynamics. It may reflect Palestinian frustration over the lack of progress with Israel: the Palestinians do not view Mr. Netanyahu’s most recent concessions as worthwhile. They have complained about the temporary nature of Mr. Netanyahu's settlement freeze proposal, as well as about Likud’s unwillingness to grant them control over East Jerusalem, which they consider to be their capital.

Thus, at a closer look, the much-publicized breakthrough in Israel’s talks with the Palestinian Authority appears illusory, with Mr. Netanyahu talking about a change without actually changing much. I do think that Mr. Netanyahu must have overcome strong resistance at home to be able to propose even a short-lived halt in the settlement expansion. Yet, in the bigger scheme of things, it does not seem like his sacrifice will gain him substantial benefits domestically or regionally.    

Israel, Hamas, Gilad Shalit, Benjamin Netanyahu, Jewish Settlements, Mahmoud Abbas, Marwan Barghouti, Palestine