Freezing for failure
Without a detailed endgame strategy, halting construction in the West Bank would be pointless.
It should be said from the onset: Do not freeze settlement construction, do not stop it in part or periodically, not for six months, not for a single day. As long as the U.S. administration does not present a comprehensive plan that explains its endgame - what the end will look like and what the shape and character of the Palestinian state will look like - the demand for a cessation of construction is pointless. It is a pathetic return to the doctrine of "confidence-building measures," which led nowhere. The demand to freeze settlement construction is like the demand to remove roadblocks or cease razing homes; all these demands and similar ones mean only one thing: making the continuation of the occupation a little more pleasant.
The demand for a cessation of settlement construction will have no impact on the political process as long as they are not telling the Israeli and Palestinian public what will happen with the half-million Israelis who already live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. How many of them will have to be evacuated? How much money will this cost and who will pay for it? Evacuating 7,000 Jews from the Gaza Strip cost more than NIS 10 billion.
Even if only 100,000 Jews are evacuated from the West Bank the move will cost, on the basis of this estimate, some NIS 150 billion - about 50 percent of the national budget for an entire year. It is true that it amounts to "only" about 8 percent of the cost of the American war in Iraq to date, and maybe for the sake of peace in the Middle East the U.S. administration would be willing to invest another 8 percent in the area, but someone in Washington must articulate this clearly. That would be much more convincing than halting the work of a crane.
American pressure yielded an impressive achievement when they twisted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's arm and got him to say that he wants "two states for two peoples." But what comes next? Are Netanyahu's two states the same two as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' and the same two as Washington's? Where will the border be demarcated? After all, if it is agreed that the end of the process will leave the settlement blocs in Israel's hands, and if indeed the Palestinians accept this in return for an exchange of territory, why is it necessary to cease construction in those blocs?
Logic dictates that construction should continue in the blocs and if possible at a faster pace, so that it will be possible to absorb those evacuated from other settlements. But when there is no plan or agreement on the border, not to mention that negotiations are not even taking place, the demand for ceasing construction appears to be some sort of independent aim - isolated from its political context and whose sole intention is to display America's ability to impose "something" on Israel. Meanwhile, the removal of illegal outposts is not something Washington has proved it is able to impose on Israel, despite Israel's promises to the Americans and despite all the brouhaha caused by Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the matter last month.
The attempt to understand the American move as an action from the periphery inward - a tactical move meant to lead to further moves, one slice at a time - is leading toward a dead end and might even be dangerous as well. Assuming Israel freezes construction and negotiations resume, and that (although there is no evidence to support it) some Arab states agree to grant Israel grace in the form of normalization, the desired result is that such confidence-building measures will encourage the government to convince the Israeli public to support the process and agree to a withdrawal. But it is not the public that needs to be encouraged; it is the right-wing government for whom the remnants of the Labor Party are serving as apologists. What is worse is that this government may agree to a gradual and temporary cessation of settlement construction, and at the same time will make every effort to prove that there is no worthwhile partner for this "sacrifice" on the other side. At the end of the settlement construction freeze, the government will be able to celebrate the failure of the negotiations and prove to the Americans that the pressure had been put on the wrong side. The chance of restarting the process from there will then be nil.
An honest government would not have to rely on the Arab safety belt in order to shake off the process. It would have taken advantage of the long period of calm in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the efficiency the Palestinian security forces have exhibited in the West Bank in combating terrorism, and the willingness of Abbas to negotiate seriously in order to tell the public that the quota of confidence-building measures has been fulfilled and the time has come for withdrawing and reaching an agreement. But this is not the sort of government that is running Israel. Washington knows this, as every Israeli citizen does. Hence the need for a comprehensive plan that will be managed with precision and determination. Freezing the settlements is not a plan and is not a prescription.