Commentary Magazine


New Reports Show Another Freeze Won’t Buy Israel Quiet with U.S.

When the emerging U.S.-Israel deal on another three-month settlement freeze was first reported, I could understand the argument (ably made by  Jonathan) that despite the freeze’s many negative consequences, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should acquiesce. But if subsequent reports are true, another extension would be disastrous. If Israel is going to spend the next two years fighting with Washington over construction with or without the deal, it can so do more effectively without another freeze.

Yesterday, Haaretz reported that contrary to previous reports, Barack Obama isn’t promising not to seek further moratoriums: his proposed letter to Netanyahu would merely say that “progress over the next three months would render another freeze unnecessary.”

Yet the chances of progress during these months rendering “another freeze unnecessary” are nonexistent. Nothing less than a signed-and-sealed deal on borders would let Israel build in “its” parts of the West Bank without Palestinian objections, and even Washington doesn’t believe that’s achievable in just three months. Thus, when the three months end, Palestinians will once again object to Israeli construction on “their” land — and Obama will once again back them by demanding another freeze.

Then came today’s report — again contradicting earlier ones — that the U.S. won’t really exempt East Jerusalem from the moratorium. A “senior U.S. official” told Haaretz that even if Israel extends the freeze, “we will continue to press for quiet throughout East Jerusalem during the 90 days.”

The official added that President Barack Obama had committed in an oral message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last April that the U.S. expects both sides to refrain from “actions that would seriously undermine trust,” including in East Jerusalem, and would respond with “steps, actions, or adjustments in policy” to any such provocative actions as long as negotiations are underway.

The U.S. administration has defined “actions that would seriously undermine trust” as including major housing announcements, demolitions, or evictions in East Jerusalem.

“This policy will continue if the negotiations resume under a 90-day moratorium and the Israelis know it”, said the US official.

In other words, even if Israel extends the freeze, it won’t get quiet: it will spend the next three months fighting with Obama over Jerusalem, followed by another major fight over the West Bank when the three months end.

And if so, better to have the fight now, when Netanyahu can still reasonably argue that the original 10-month freeze was a one-time gesture that Abbas wasted by refusing to negotiate, and that the onus is therefore now on Abbas, not him, to make the next gesture.

But the minute Netanyahu agrees to another freeze, he accepts two dangerous principles: that the freeze wasn’t an exceptional one-time gesture but instead a tolerable long-term policy, and that it’s never Abbas who needs to make gestures; it’s always and only Israel’s turn. And that leaves him no justification for not extending the freeze again in another three months.

For two years of quiet with Washington, another three-month freeze might be worth it. But if what Israel will really get is just two more years of continued fighting, the only sensible answer is “no.”