Newspaper headlines across the world this morning will trumpet the courageous and unprecedented initiative of Israel's prime minister. Who could have imagined that the right-wing leader Benjamin Netanyahu and the settler Avigdor Lieberman would lend a hand to freezing settlement construction? How the settlers' fuses will blow. Now Daniel Ben Simon can end his love affair with the Labor rebels and go back to being faithful to Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Indeed, from Israel's point of view, the government took a major step yesterday. Prime Minister Netanyahu says the move is designed to return the Palestinians to the peace talks. If this is really his intention, the prime minister has managed (temporarily) to pass the hot potato to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. No peace process will come out of it.
It is hard to decide what would cause greater harm to whatever is left of Abbas' status in the Palestinian public - American pressure to settle with the deal Netanyahu offered him yesterday, or the prisoner-exchange deal that the prime minister is offering his great enemies in Hamas. It is unlikely that Netanyahu really believed Abbas would thank Israel's government for deciding to temporarily freeze the settlements in the West Bank, praise it for building synagogues and new schools, agree to the completion of 2,500 partially-built housing units and the construction of 492 new apartments.
It is unlikely Netanyahu thought that on the eve of Id al-Adha the Muslim leader would adopt the Jewish people's position that East Jerusalem is part of the State of Israel. Is Netanyahu really expecting Abbas to recognize Israel's sovereignty on Gilo, not to mention Sheikh Jarrah and the Temple Mount?
The really important question, which interests Netanyahu more than anything, is how U.S. President Barack Obama will view his proposal. This is not the first time an Israeli government has committed to freezing settlements. Tomorrow it will be two years since prime minister Ehud Olmert announced in Annapolis his commitment to open negotiations on the basis of the road map.
In that detailed document, the Sharon cabinet undertook in May 2003 to suspend all activity in the settlements, including construction for natural growth.
The list of 14 reservations attached to the cabinet decision said that the settlements in the West Bank would not even be discussed "except for freezing the settlements and removing the outposts."
Freezing West Bank settlements, even temporarily, has become a necessary condition for saving the two-state solution and the Palestinian faction supporting it. Necessary, but by no means sufficient. In the absence of basic trust between the parties, even if Netanyahu continues to shove building permits into the drawer, as he has been doing since he returned to the prime minister's desk, it won't suffice.
Today's newspaper reports about the settlements are more important than what is actually happening in them. In this situation, the ball - a ball of fire - has returned to the White House's course.
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