Only the Bush-Sharon formula can save Obama and Netanyahu
Israel will need solid American guarantees in order to take the risks required to achieve peace with the Palestinians.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has three good reasons to continue construction in the West Bank. The first reason is credibility: Netanyahu undertook to renew construction this autumn and if he does not do so he will lose his credibility in Israel and beyond. The second reason is survivability. Freezing the construction would strengthen MK Avigdor Lieberman, alienate Shas and cut off Netanyahu from his power base in the right wing. The third reason is fairness. Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert all built in the West Bank in the course of the peace process. Demanding of Netanyahu to do otherwise - while the Palestinians are not required to do anything to advance the peace process - is blatantly unfair.
But Netanyahu also has three excellent reasons to freeze the construction in the West Bank. The first reason is Barack Obama. If Netanyahu does not cooperate with Obama, the United States will advance a forced arrangement that would return Israel to the 1967 lines in a hasty, dangerous procedure with possibly disastrous consequences.
The second reason is Barack Obama. If Netanyahu enters into a frontal collision with the president, the U.S. will not stand beside Israel when the Iranian moment of truth arrives.
And the third reason is Barack Obama. If Netanyahu injures the president, the U.S. will not stand by when Israel tumbles down the slippery slope of delegitimization and becomes a pariah state.
It's a sticky problem. The catch is real. At present Netanyahu is right, but he is not being smart. His insistence on a non-vital matter is endangering vital Israeli interests. His hesitancy in making the decision required of a leader presents him and his government in a despicable light. After weeks of debates, Washington and Jerusalem still have not identified the creative idea to pull the peace process out of the mud and prevent an American-Israeli collision this winter.
Here's a creative idea. In exchange for freezing construction in the West Bank for 60 days, the U.S. will renew the commitment President Bush made in his April 2004 letter. Bush's letter was given to Ariel Sharon in exchange for the disengagement. It consists of a vague commitment that when peace is made, the settlement blocs will remain in Israel's hands and the Palestinian refugees will not return to Israel.
As opposition leader, Netanyahu used to belittle the letter. As prime minister, he understood its importance and has demanded that Obama honor it. Obama refused. Now we have a golden opportunity to make a breakthrough American-Israeli deal: Israel agrees to the Obama administration's request for the freeze while the Obama administration adopts President Bush's letter word-for-word.
For Netanyahu, this is a win-win formula. If Obama agrees, Israel will gain a significant achievement that would improve its situation in the international arena and in the negotiations on the final-status arrangement. If Obama refuses, his confrontation with Israel will not be about a thousand ridiculous apartments in the territories but about U.S. credibility. Instead of Netanyahu being the dissenter, Obama will be the dissenter. When it emerges that an incumbent American president is denying a commitment given by a previous American president and adopted by a large majority of the two houses of Congress, Israel will pass from a state of moral inferiority to one of moral superiority.
This is not merely a tactical matter. To make peace with the Palestinians Israel will have to take on itself almost survival-threatening risks. For Israel to take such risks it will need solid American guarantees. If the U.S. tears to shreds its previous guarantees, there is no value to future guarantees it might provide. So the matter of American credibility is fundamental.
Any decent American - in the Congress, the media and the Middle West - is expected to understand that anyone who undermines American credibility is sabotaging peace just as much as those building in the settlements.
It is time both Washington and Jerusalem stop being right, start being clever and treat the credibility and freezing issues simultaneously. Obama cannot stand Bush. Netanyahu had little admiration for Sharon. But the only formula that will save Obama and Netanyahu is the Bush-Sharon formula.