There is something about the Netanyahu-Obama stand-off on settlements that seems beside the point. Had Ronald Reagan, following Jimmy Carter's lead, demanded a total freeze in 1980, the idea might have worked. Today the demand for a freeze reminds me of the joke about the implacable customer at a restaurant who, having waited too long for his dinner, says he can be appeased only by being served "15 minutes ago."
President Obama clearly wants to make a clean break with the past, and even make a show of force to Israeli extremists. But a total freeze is now out of the question. About 400,000 settlers live in crowded communities more or less contiguous with Israel (like Gush Etzion), or in Jerusalem suburbs (like Gilo and Ma'aleh Adumim). These urbanized areas are clearly not going to be moved or dismantled. And they cannot stop growing. Rather, a new border must be drawn around them and Palestine will have to be compensated in some way. Even the Geneva Initiative negotiators agreed on this.
The people who will be moved as part of any conceivable peace, who have turned Palestine into strangulated enclaves, are the 75,000-100,000 residents of settlements scattered around Hebron and between Ramallah and Nablus - vexingly, the very people who are most mobilized against any kind of deal and must be confronted by the international community and mainstream Israelis. (Salam Fayyad's offer of Palestinian citizenship to Jews who are more attached to the ancient land than the modern state, will be scoffed at by most of these settlers.)
All of which raises a question. Clearly, the issue here is not a settlement freeze. The freeze has become a proxy for the larger question of where to locate an internationally recognized border between two states. Why, then, should Obama fight - with little chance of success - over a symbol and defer the fight over what is symbolized, which will eventually require a hard line from America and the world anyway?
Consider another approach, that taken in Geneva. The fact that large settlements are immovable means the June 4, 1967, border is not feasible, but the principle of defining a border on the basis of June 4 certainly is. America needs to offer support, and fast, for a 1:1 land swap to insure that territories allotted to Israel and Palestine are equivalent in area to what existed on June 4. It should appoint a Quartet commission, answerable to Senator Mitchell, to suggest a map. Palestine is not Israel's internal affair, nor will Palestinians ever accept the border envisioned by Netanyahu. Only a new "international" map will reconcile the Arab League peace initiative with the difficulties of moving settlers back into Israel.
Sketching a border will bring obvious immediate benefits, such as helping government officials, businesspeople and others on both sides to plan and invest. But it will also help prepare the ground to evacuate those who must ultimately be moved. This will take years, just like moderating Hamas by rehabilitating the Palestinian Authority will take years. The Israel Defense Forces and the police could never muster enough manpower to simply move these settlers by force - anyway, many IDF officers sympathize with settlement.
And to get these people out, you have to do four things: marginalize them politically, that is, create a conflict of interest between settlers living within an agreed-upon border and the more fanatic types outside; induce them to return to agreed settlements or to within the Green Line with time-limited financial compensation; threaten them with power and water cuts; and, should all else fail, remove them by siege or, if necessary, force. All that is going to be very hard. As it withdraws, the IDF should work with NATO forces to replace its own soldiers.
There is nothing fanciful about projecting a border. For most Israelis, the line between Israel and occupied territory is self-evident. Palestinian leaders have all but said they're willing to compromise on the 1967 line, and effectively demilitarize their state, so long as a way can be found to compensate Palestine with land that is as much and as good as land annexed to Israel, and compensate and resettle the original refugees of 1948 in a Palestinian state - or, as one Ramallah friend suggested, so long as the futures of Israel and Palestine are linked to larger federal arrangements. Nor do you need more than common sense to see where the contention will come. For example, Ariel (smack-dab between Ramallah and Nablus) could never be part of a future Israel. Olmert insisted that it must be, which is one reason his talks with Mahmoud Abbas went nowhere. Here is where America's view becomes crucial, so why not apprise the sides of it now?
In any case, Obama is right to try and keep new settlement projects from being added to the 160 that already exist - that is, to insist that Israel remove new outposts, and prevent construction that fills in the gaps between existing settlements; and to forestall projects that would further compromise the viability of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. But we are beyond the talk of the road map's freeze now, or should be. What we need is a destination and a driver.
Bernard Avishai is adjunct professor of business at Hebrew University, and the author of "The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel Peace at Last" (Harcourt). He blogs at www.bernardavishai.com.