The winner in the settlement row is Netanyahu
As the construction freeze end, the PM finds himself in the political center, without having to make crucial decisions
Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be the winner of the construction-freeze crisis: The 10-month suspension of building in the settlements will not be extended and the prime minister has given up nothing. Peace talks with the Palestinians will continue, the coalition is as strong as ever, and the government enjoys some freedom of movement regarding the settlers and the U.S. administration.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, his threats to the contrary, will not scuttle the peace talks that have barely begun just because Netanyahu isn't extending the freeze. U.S. President Barack Obama, preaching for the moratorium to continue, can't force it on Netanyahu on the eve of the congressional elections when his party's leaders are calling for negotiations to continue without regard to the settlements.
Abbas and Obama will swallow the end of the freeze and wait for Israel to stumble by approving a provocative building plan. Then they will try to trap Netanyahu again and threaten him with a diplomatic crisis or endanger his coalition. This is what happened with Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem, when Israel announced more construction while U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was visiting in March.
Netanyahu will try to leverage his success in the freeze crisis to show his camp that he really is the strongman of his election slogans. The signal to the right is clear: I'm no dishrag as you've portrayed me, but a cautious, responsible navigator who sometimes has to keep his head down and make tactical concessions until the wave passes. Trust me to guard the Land of Israel in the same fashion.
After the cabinet approved the freeze on November 25, it was said that "the government will apply the policy of previous administrations in the matter of construction in Judea and Samaria." The previous administrations' policy can be summarized this way: With the diplomatic process stalled and Israel isolated internationally, settlement expansion also halted. When peace seemed just around the corner and Israel enjoyed good international relations, the settlement project flew forward.
This is how it was in the days of Menachem Begin (peace with Egypt and 100 new settlements in the West Bank ), Yitzhak Rabin (the Oslo Accords and the paving of bypass roads bringing the settlements closer to Israel's center ), Benjamin Netanyahu (building Har Homa after the Hebron Agreement ), Ehud Barak (thousands of new apartments in the occupied territories on the way to the Camp David Summit ), and Ehud Olmert (increased construction around Jerusalem after the Annapolis Conference ).
This is the settlement paradox: They expand in direct proportion to advances in the diplomatic process. When there is no peace, there is no construction, and when there are contacts, ceremonies and optimism, hundreds of new homes sprout up in the hills of the West Bank. Anyone who wants to stop the settlements has to throw a wrench in the negotiations. And those who want to fill the territories with settlers must encourage the givers-and-takers. To put it simply, Peace Now should fight against peace talks, and the Yesha Council of settlements should pay for plane tickets to Washington and Annapolis.
One may assume it will be the same with Netanyahu. After he releases some of the immediate pressure and calms the settlers down, letting a few homes be built in proportion to gestures made to the Palestinians, he will delay plans for further construction in the West Bank. These plans will have to wait for an improvement in the diplomatic process. They will be authorized when Netanyahu and Abbas have drawn closer; then pressure will be put on Israel once again. Building will speed up again, concentrated in blocs to strengthen Israel's negotiating position on borders, and to create more facts on the ground.
This policy will also serve as Netanyahu's carrot and stick regarding the Yesha Council. The settler leaders displayed their control in the field during the freeze. Concerns that there would be provocative building violations gradually receded. Netanyahu bribed the settlers by returning their preferential economic status, and they quieted down. Now he will say to them: There is no freeze, but it's not worth your while to build provocatively at points of friction, which will only increase American pressure. Show maturity and responsibility; your turn will come.
At the end of the freeze, Netanyahu finds himself exactly where he wants to be: at the political center, without having made decisions that would force him to choose a side. All the balls are in the air: The Labor Party and Kadima got the diplomatic process they wanted, and the right got renewed construction in the West Bank. The real decisions, if there will be any, have been left for next summer, just before the deadline on negotiations for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Until then Netanyahu can swing right and left, demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, hint on an approaching breakthrough with the Syrians, and hope with all his might that Iran will do something provocative that will challenge America and its allies to take serious steps against it.