The dispute with the United States over the settlement freeze is a futile controversy serving only one purpose: to bolster the status of the administration of President Barack Obama as an honest broker in the eyes of the Palestinians and the Arab states, in contrast to that of his predecessor, which was seen in Ramallah, Cairo and Riyadh as serving Israel. Obama wants to show that he can bend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That is not necessarily bad for Netanyahu. Every minute spent on unnecessary discussions on the future of unfinished buildings and empty apartments in the settlements defers the tough decisions that he still must face, and it leaves his coalition stable.
In fact, even if construction in the settlements is frozen forever and not a single dog kennel or sheet of drywall is put up, the reality of the peace process will not change. Peace will not break out. Israel will not free itself of the occupation and its opponents around the world will continue to accuse it of apartheid and oppression of the Palestinians. There is a limit to what can be received in compensation for what one is not doing.
The real debate will come in the next phase, when Obama presents his Middle East peace plan, or when Netanyahu surprises him with an end run and an initiative of his own, thereby avoiding an imposed agreement. Proposing their own plans is what Menahem Begin did in connection with the peace process with Egypt and what Ariel Sharon did with the Gaza disengagement. They preferred to pay a smaller price up front, but they controlled developments in the peace process and were not asked to make even greater concessions.
Until now Netanyahu preferred to be seen as giving into Obama's pressure and compromising on Likud principles for the sake of relations with America. If he maintains this passive approach he will be faced with a demand for a complete withdrawal from the territories, which he will find difficult. His responsiveness to Obama on the issue of a Palestinian state shows that Netanyahu is not Yitzhak Shamir. He doesn't have the emotional strength to go head to head with the Americans, nor does he have the same ideological commitment to the Greater Land of Israel.
Even if Netanyahu doesn't believe in peace and compromise with the Arabs, he wants Israel to be accepted in the international community and understands the importance of relations with the United States. For better or worse he is nearing a decision like those made by Begin and Sharon.
Netanyahu might think he would do well to propose evacuating isolated settlements, to return settlers from the West Bank without withdrawing the army or to conduct expedited negotiations with Syria (as he attempted in 1998 to avoid U.S. pressure for an additional West Bank withdrawal). And maybe he will come up with something original and interesting that no one has thought of.
The common denominator of all these ideas is that they cannot be implemented with Netanyahu's current coalition. To go beyond talk of a settlement freeze to a real peace process, Netanyahu will need Kadima's Tzipi Livni by his side. Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi will not allow him to cede even a millimeter. Kadima constitutes his strategic reserves, and without it he will be doomed to wander the world like a leper, absorbing public blows from Obama and the Europeans and concluding yet another term without leaving a legacy.
That's why Netanyahu must keep Kadima strong in the opposition. Without the party he will become a pawn in the hands of Yisrael Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman and Shas' Eli Yishai. Only the prospect of an alternative to the current coalition will allow him to continue moving forward.
In attempting to fracture Kadima through the "Mofaz bill," which would enable seven or more Knesset members to form their own party, Netanyahu is acting against his own interests. If he adds a few more MKs to Likud he would only be buying himself more "rebels," who would act against every initiative and move in the peace process. Anyone returning to Likud from Kadima would have to demonstrate allegiance to the party's old values and take right-wing positions. One can understand the temptation to destroy the rival party, but if Kadima splits apart Netanyahu will be trapped in a coalition with his "natural partners" from the far right and be faced with a bitter, ongoing confrontation with Washington.
Netanyahu must preserve his strategic reserves instead of looking for token gains. In his previous term as prime minister he fell from power because he stuck with the extreme right and didn't cultivate an alternative coalition, and then the right abandoned him over the Wye River accord. It would be a shame if that happened to him again after working so hard to get back into office.
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