West Bank settlers celebrate end of construction freeze on September 26, 2010
West Bank settlers celebrate end of construction freeze on September 26, 2010. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Dozens of press photographers roamed the West Bank yesterday searching for what has become the symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: tractors. This may be the age of high-tech, ballistic missiles and cyberwar, but last night it seemed as if the fate of the Middle East depended on a few pictures of those elderly vehicles, as old as the conflict itself, snorting up the rocky hills.

The question is who the tractors will hurt more: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who as of last night had yet to cave in to massive pressure from the White House, or the settlers who celebrated the end of the freeze on settlement construction but know in their hearts that the more loudly they trumpet their victory, the less actual building will take place?

As of today, the legal situation will be better for construction - but the political situation will be even less tolerant of it. And in the end, that's what really matters.

Netanyahu might have been able to get the cabinet to extend the freeze for 60 days, as the Americans requested. But why should he lose credibility, appear weak and vulnerable to pressure, spark political infighting in the coalition and his own Likud party and play into his rivals' hands over an issue as marginal as a brief extension of the freeze?

He knows that someday, he will have to confront the same dilemma that his predecessors, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, did: Should he abandon the outdated, unrealistic ideology "on which we ran for election," as his rival Silvan Shalom never tires of reminding him, in favor of a deal whose price is well known? And he says he wants to reach this day with a stable coalition and most of the public behind him.

Whether he actually means it, only he knows. But he cannot allow the talks to blow up. A renewed diplomatic stalemate would bring renewed violence, international isolation, European sanctions and UN condemnations. And it would also bring the Labor Party's exit from the government, leaving Netanyahu with his nightmare scenario: a right-wing minority government supported from the outside by the extremists of the National Union, suffering daily extortion by the ultra-Orthodox parties and, even worse, the extremists within Likud.

That is why he made Labor chairman Ehud Barak his chief partner and confidant on the question of ending the settlement freeze. Over the last week, while Barak was in the United States, they must have spoken by phone about 100 times. Netanyahu hopes that by making Barak a full partner, he has locked him into the coalition and eliminated any pretext for quitting.

But he knows Barak is merely the agent of a party. And if there is no peace process, no hope, violence and international isolation, Labor will have no reason to hang around for the funeral.