As could have been expected, the limited construction freeze in the settlements has not brought the Palestinian leaders back to the negotiating table. It is obvious that the decision to give incentives to residents of isolated settlements will not contribute to building trust between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu is continuing to walk a tightrope between his commitment to a two-state solution and his desire to placate the settlers and their representatives in Likud and the governing coalition. Abbas, too, is in a bind, hoping to end the occupation but fearing that a retreat from basic principles on sensitive issues such as Jewish construction in East Jerusalem would play into the hands of his Hamas rivals.
In an interview with Avi Issacharoff in Haaretz on Wednesday, Abbas suggested a way out of the dilemma: freezing Jewish construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for six months without making a public declaration to that effect. In any event, the Israeli government is obligated by the Sharon government's official decision in the road map to impose a total construction freeze in the settlements (and the evacuation of illegal outposts). In Abbas' view, during this period, it would be possible to begin talks on a final peace agreement without preconditions other than the road map's provisions and come to an agreement. Abbas said he suggested this in two conversations with Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the past three weeks but did not get a response.
If Netanyahu and Barak truly wish to preserve the two-state option and avoid the collapse of the Palestinian leadership that supports it, they must respond positively to Abbas' proposal. The damage from prolonging the diplomatic stalemate and the departure of a pragmatic leader like Abbas would affect Israel's interests in the region and around the world infinitely more than the price of a total sixth-month construction freeze beyond the Green Line.
The bitter lesson of Netanyahu and Barak's previous terms in office should have taught them that a leader who tries to advance the peace process and maintain Israel's standing in the world while reconciling with the extreme right loses in the end. This time their acrobatics could end in the loss of an important partner for peace and a deterioration in Israel's foreign relations.
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