The announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that hundreds of new housing units will be built in the settlements, a moment before the "temporary hiatus" in issuing new building permits, appears to be a crude attempt to satisfy both the Obama administration, which is demanding Netanyahu freeze construction, and the settlers' lobby and Likud supporters, who are threatening to undermine the prime minister's hold on power.
The White House was quick to condemn Netanyahu's decision and demanded Israel meet its commitment to the road map and freeze construction. Netanyahu said that he did not catch the Americans by surprise, and that he had warned them in advance about his intention to announce "construction before the freeze."
The result is troubling. Even though he has repeatedly sought to assure us that he has "changed" and "matured," Netanyahu is once more suffering from the same weak leadership that he exhibited during his previous tenure as prime minister. Once more he is proving to be "Bibi yes/no," who supports one thing but also the opposite. Instead of showing determination and sticking to his principles (if he has any), the prime minister is proving to be a ball that is being kicked between the Americans and the settlers, between Tzipi Hotovely and Danny Danon, and Barack Obama and George Mitchell. How does this behavior reconcile with the attitude he exhibited as finance minister in the Sharon government, when he stuck to his goals and showed willingness to take political risks?
Netanyahu needs to learn from his failure in the 1990s, when he unenthusiastically furthered the Oslo process, all the while "throwing bones" to the settlers and publicly attacking the left. It did not work: The Americans and Palestinians came to view him as a liar, and the settlers and his supporters were angered by his "unprecedented concessions." The result was that the Wye Accords, which Netanyahu signed with Yasser Arafat, quickly collapsed and the right joined Labor and removed Netanyahu from power.
Now Netanyahu is repeating the same mistakes. Hundreds of new housing units, which will be added to 2,500 such units already in construction, will undermine the credibility of his government in the eyes of the international community, but will not satisfy the settlers' appetite.
Further construction will not establish facts that will bolster Israel's position in future negotiations on permanent boundaries, and will not strengthen Netanyahu's public image and political standing. It will only disrupt efforts to achieve the key goal he has set - establishing a demilitarized Palestinian state next to Israel - and may make the prime minister appear to be a weak leader, susceptible to pressure and duplicitous.
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