The 10-month settlement freeze announced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week entails obvious risks, from the danger of being perceived as vulnerable to pressure to the time bomb of what happens when the 10 months end. And if the goal is to placate the Palestinians, Arab states, Europe, or the U.S., it also entails few rewards: all have already declared it insufficient (though some deemed it a “positive” first step).
But the freeze, like Netanyahu’s speech last June outlining his principles for a two-state solution, is probably aimed first and foremost at a domestic audience. And on this level, it may be sound tactics.
One lesson Netanyahu learned from both his first term as prime minister and his time in Ariel Sharon’s government was the importance of keeping the Israeli Center behind him. He currently faces two major problems — a nonexistent peace process and a likely need to order military action against Iran — that are liable to result in widespread international condemnation, escalated anti-Israel terror, pressure for potentially dangerous concessions, and perhaps even sanctions. To withstand this, he will need solid domestic support, which means he must convince the Israeli majority that neither problem is his fault: that he truly tried to restart peace talks and thereby also spur international action on Iran, given the West’s claim that such action would be easier if peace talks were progressing.
Faced with similar circumstances — a stalled peace process, a looming Iranian threat, growing international pressure, and consequent eroding domestic support — Sharon decided to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza. That achieved its goal: it got the Israeli Center behind him. But the price, in terms of both security and Israel’s image (as January’s Gaza war showed), was horrific.
The settlement freeze is a far smarter means of achieving the same goal. The only security risks it poses are those that stem from being perceived as easily pressured. Yet it is a concession no previous Israeli prime minister ever offered, and a substantial one: it even applies to settlement blocs that Israel wants to keep under any agreement and where even the moderate Left deems continued construction no impediment to peace.
Thus even if it fails to satisfy the Arabs, Europeans, and Americans, Netanyahu’s hope is that it will satisfy most Israelis: that when the world begins condemning Israel for the lack of progress toward peace and demanding additional, more dangerous concessions, the Israeli majority will not blame Netanyahu’s “intransigence” — after all, he has shown great flexibility — but rather the Palestinians’ unwillingness to respond to his gesture, and the world’s unwillingness to pressure them to do so instead of once again pressuring Israel. And it will therefore back him in refusing to make further concessions.
The freeze is a high-stakes gamble and could easily prove to be just the first of many Netanyahu capitulations to pressure. But if it pays off in mainstream Israeli support for confronting the difficult challenges ahead, it will be well worth the price.