U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting in the U.S. in January 2010. Photo by (GPO)
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Just a short time after being renewed, Palestinian-Israeli negotiations are caught in a crisis with the expiration of the freeze order on settlement construction. This crisis was foreseeable in advance. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that the freeze will not be extended; for his part, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has announced that the talks will be stopped should settlement expansion be revived. While the settlers celebrate the renewal of building, the U.S. government is acting to save the diplomatic process from collapse.

U.S. President Barack Obama is demanding that Netanyahu extend the freeze, even if just for a limited period of 60 days. Refusing to do so, Netanyahu claims that this demand is unjust, since Israel fulfilled its promises while the Palestinians killed time; moreover, Netanyahu adds, "moderate, restrained construction" will not damage prospects for peace. Netanyahu is worried that should Israel restore the freeze, even for a limited time, his government coalition will collapse.

Understanding Netanyahu's political difficulties, Obama is proposing a basket of American assurances that would support Israel's security demands concerning a final status agreement with the Palestinians, guarantee that the US will not demand another settlement freeze extension, and thwart attempts to transfer direct peace talks to the UN Security Council. Obama is prepared to supply Israel with sophisticated weaponry, act to establish a regional security framework and support Netanyahu's demand that IDF troops be deployed in the Jordan Valley for a long period. All this in exchange for a 60-day freeze.

Netanyahu, however, is entrenched in his stance. He is making it clear that the stability of his coalition and the expansion of settlements are more important to him than U.S. government support, and even far-reaching security guarantees that the prime minister himself has demanded in the past from Obama. Netanyahu's position raises great doubt as to whether his intention of attaining a "two states for two peoples" solution is honest and serious - perhaps all his peace talk has been designed to deflect international pressure from Israel, while it continues to hold on to the territories.

Leaders are judged by the decisions they reach while dealing with political difficulties. When it comes to his credibility, Netanyahu has just one way of persuading Israel's public and the international community: He should accept Obama's proposal and extend the freeze in exchange for the American guarantees. Only in this way can he show that he is committed to negotiations and an agreement, and is capable of leading.