Trying to outsmart Obama
Even if Washington were to accept Netanyahu's compromise position on settlements, the confrontation will not have been avoided.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisors are exerting their best efforts in the search for ways to avoid a confrontation with the president of the United States, who has publicly called for a cessation of construction in West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem. But there should be no doubt about it: The government of Israel and the U.S. president are on a collision course. That became clear when Barack Obama declared in his speech in Cairo that "this must stop," referring to Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.
There are surely ways of postponing the collision, but in the final analysis, it is unavoidable, unless either the Israeli government accepts this diktat from the U.S. president, or Obama and his advisors recognize that Jews have a right to live and settle in Judea and Samaria. No amount of "creative ambiguity" is going to resolve this problem.
So how is Netanyahu going to handle this conundrum? He had experience dealing with president Bill Clinton on the Palestinian issue during his previous term as prime minister, and it is unlikely that he looks back on that experience with nostalgia.
In January 1997, giving in to pressure from the Clinton administration, he signed the Hebron agreement - which called for removing the Israel Defense Forces from most of Hebron and introducing a small international force into the area - with Yasser Arafat. Since then, Hamas has been predominant in Hebron, and the city has remained a powder keg of tension between Jews and Arabs. And it was only years later, after the IDF was reintroduced into the area during the second intifada, that an end came to continuous acts of Palestinian terror.
The year after the Hebron agreement, he agreed to meet Arafat at Wye Plantation under Clinton's auspices. Nothing came of that conference except that the American president was drawn toward Arafat and subsequently visited Gaza, where he declared that the American people supported the Palestinian people's aspirations. So much for impartial arbitration.
So how is it going to be handled this time? From news reports, it seems that Netanyahu intends to keep Obama at bay for a limited period of time while he placates his own supporters with a permit to "complete buildings in Judea and Samaria that have already begun," and then declare a moratorium on further construction there for a period of nine months. On receiving this news in Washington, Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, probably told the president the old joke about the Jew who asked for a year's stay of execution from the Polish count by promising him that during that time, he would teach the count's dog to talk.
Is this going to work? Obama has decided to take his position on Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria public, and though many things will surely happen during the next nine months, he is not likely to retract his position during that period. In other words, even if Washington were to accept Netanyahu's compromise position, the confrontation will not have been avoided.
That being the case, Netanyahu must consider whether it is not wiser to face Washington on a matter of principle - the right of Jews to live and settle in the Land of Israel - rather than engage in a war of attrition over a compromise formula. Anybody with experience representing Israel in the United States will tell him that there, you are better off fighting for a principle than trying to justify a compromise deal.
Over the years, Israeli governments have had differences of opinions with various administrations in Washington - though it is true that not since President Eisenhower demanded that the IDF retreat from Sinai and Gaza after the Suez Campaign, 50 years ago, have these differences been taken so public by the U.S. president. We obviously prefer to be in total agreement with our ally across the sea, but we know that is not always possible. We also prefer to handle the differences of opinion between us with discretion.
But in either case, we know that we can ride out the disagreements. Israel's alliance with the United States is based not only on common ideals and values, but also on mutual interests, and even a recognition of mutual benefits, despite the vast asymmetry in size between the two countries. When it comes to our most basic rights - the right of Jews to live in the Land of Israel - the United States will defer to Israel. That is, if we stand up for our rights.