The debate over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to renew a settlement-building freeze in the West Bank has been rightly characterized by my colleagues Jennifer Rubin, Evelyn Gordon, and J.E. Dyer as a measure that will not advance the basic interests of the United States or Israel and that will undermine the slim chances for a genuine peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Others are also correct when they point out that this decision, like virtually every other concession made by Israel since the start of the Oslo process in 1993, strengthens the incorrect perception that the Palestinians are the only lawful owners of all of the West Bank.
But as much as Oslo has been completely discredited by the Palestinians’ refusal to make peace, Netanyahu cannot afford to act as if the desire of the United States to pursue another round of peace talks is irrelevant. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may be among the last people on Planet Earth to fail to understand that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has neither the will nor the interest in signing a peace accord, no matter where Israel’s borders are drawn. Their decision — to hound Netanyahu to renew the freeze for 90 days even after a 10-month freeze was ignored by the Palestinians — is an absurd policy that mires the administration in a dead-end process that can win them no laurels and few thanks from a Muslim world that Obama is still clearly interested in appeasing.
Yet would it have been prudent of Netanyahu to simply say no indefinitely? Another three months of a freeze won’t do more to undermine Israel’s rights or security than the previous 17 years of fruitless negotiations have done, whereas another spat with the White House that could have been blamed on Israel would worsen the country’s position.
It is true, as Evelyn Gordon has written, that Israel will get no credit from an international community that is hostile to the existence of the Jewish state. But it is also true that actions that highlight the true obstacle to peace — Palestinian irredentism — are essential to maintaining the bipartisan, across-the-board support for Israel here in the United States. As much as Netanyahu would have been justified in bluntly and publicly telling Obama and Clinton that their demand for another freeze was wrong, that would have meant putting his country in the position to be accused of saying “no” to peace. Such a charge would be a lie, but it would have strengthened the hand of those in the Obama administration who want to distance the United States from Israel, and it would also have been exactly what Abbas wanted because it would allow him to avoid being the one to say “no” to more talks or ultimately to an agreement. In the game of chicken being played by Israel and the Palestinians, all the settlement freeze has done is to put more pressure on Abbas to jump out of the talks, illustrating once again that peace is something that will only be achieved by a change in the political culture of the Palestinians.
Netanyahu must live with a situation where his only ally-state is led by a man who is still uncomfortable with Israel and unwilling to abandon his hubristic belief that he can succeed in making peace where all who have gone before him have failed. Obama has another two years left in his current term and 12 months or so before the requirements of his quest for re-election may serve to deter him from further putting the screws to Israel. During this period, Netanyahu may face a decision about whether Israel will strike at Iran’s nuclear project. Another war with Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza may also be forced upon the Jewish state during this time frame.
There are no guarantees that this concession, like all those made by Israel before this, will strengthen Israel’s hand in gaining support for its right of self-defense, but doing so will surely make it easier for Israel to make its case before the American people, especially at a time when the White House must be considered essentially unfriendly to Jerusalem. Under the circumstances, Netanyahu cannot be blamed for deciding that giving in on the freeze — when it is obvious that the Palestinians will not take advantage of the opening — is the lesser of two evils.