A tiny diplomatic crack
A freeze in construction is not meant to satisfy the United States as having achieved a diplomatic victory, or to be seen as a personal achievement by its president. Netanyahu opened a tiny diplomatic crack, but it is too little too late.
The prime minister's announcement this week to halt construction in the West Bank settlements will not satisfy those who consider the existence of settlements an obstacle for peace. Limiting the hiatus to a 10-month period, after which construction will resume, excluding East Jerusalem from the freeze, permitting the completion of buildings where construction has already begun and making no comment on the evacuation of illegal outposts, all raise serious doubts about the prime minister's true intentions.
It may be possible to be satisfied with the change in Benjamin Netanyahu's stance and impressed by his ability to impose his will on his political rivals, but this is not a political test. This is an essential step in view of tremendous international pressure, the enormous blow to Israel's standing and the threat to crush the diplomatic process.
At the same time, the decision is not meant to bring about a peace agreement, nor to offer a final resolution on the status of the settlements. Its aims are limited, too. Freezing settlement construction, including in Jerusalem, is a precondition to the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This is also its test. The prime minister's decision, whose foundations are in the road map that Israel adopted as early as 2002, should have been made long ago. This would have not only prevented pressure that has been put on Israel, which undermined its relations with the United States, but the negotiations with the Palestinians would have by now reached a more advanced stage. Now, in light of the reservations included within it, this latest freeze may be perceived as insufficient.
Evidence to support this can be seen in the negative Palestinian response, which argues that this is merely a decision aiming to make an impression, particularly in Washington, one that lacks any incentive for furthering negotiations. On the other hand, the Palestinians should recognize that Netanyahu has changed his position on two issues: the adoption of the formula of "two states for two peoples," and his willingness to temporarily halt construction permits. Both are sufficient to restart the negotiations. There are still many difficulties and complex core issues in these negotiations, which pose crash risks at every junction; however, without a resumption of talks, there will be no chance of resolving them.
As such, the prime minister's decision cannot remain just a declaration, or simply something to flash at Washington. The warning by the attorney general - that there is insufficient power to enforce the decision, and that the number of building inspectors (only 14) cannot ensure its implementation - raises serious concerns that until the decision is implemented, and the construction is actually stopped, many new facts on the ground may be established. The weight of the decision must not be allowed to evaporate due to inefficient bureaucracy - something which will be used by its opponents.
A freeze in construction is not meant to satisfy the United States as having achieved a diplomatic victory, or to be seen as a personal achievement by its president. Netanyahu opened a tiny diplomatic crack, but it is too little too late. This is only the first link in a process that Barack Obama has promised to bring to fruition. Now Washington must resume action along the main track, focusing on the immediate resumption of negotiations and determined mediation until an agreement is reached.