Akiva Eldar / Settlement Freeze Furor Is a Mask for Netanyahu's True Intentions

Netanyahu is looking for a magical solution to both let the tractors get back to work in the West Bank and to keep Abbas at the negotiating table.

It's no spin. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu really is looking high and low for a magical solution to both let the tractors get back to work on settlement lands and leave President Mahmoud Abbas at the negotiating table.

Construction in settlements is a very uncomfortable issue for Israel. Most countries say settlement in occupied territory is illegal; friendly governments believe that building in the occupied territories is an obstacle to peace. The boycott of Ariel's new cultural center reminded us that here, too, the settlements are more a bone of contention than the foundation for our existence. Who will believe Bibi will be ready within a year to evacuate thousands of homes if he cannot / will not declare a temporary moratorium on the construction of a few hundred new homes? Over that it's worth breaking up the peace talks?

Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu, AP

No, Netanyahu does not want to create a crisis over the freeze. Why should he have a crisis over the demand of Jewish migrants to settle in Hebron if he can focus it on the demand of Palestinian refugees to return to Haifa? Let Bibi get through the nuisance of the freeze, and he will pull Abbas into the sure trap over the "right of return." What will Tzipi Livni say, and even those who call themselves "the Zionist left" when Abbas announces he refuses to give up the right of return in advance?

A broad hint of this scheme could be seen in statements Netanyahu made during a visit to Sderot a week ago. "I'm not talking about a name," Netanyahu said, to explain his insistence the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. "I'm talking about essence," he said.

"When they refuse to say something so simple, the question is why?" Netanyahu said to explain what he meant by essence. "Do you want to flood the state of Israel with refugees so it will no longer be a country with a Jewish majority? Do you want to rip away parts of the Galilee and the Negev?" When Netanyahu demands agreement ahead of time that the talks are intended to bring about, according to him, agreement on the establishment of the "nation-state of the Jewish people" alongside a Palestinian state, he is therefore demanding the Palestinians give up in advance on the right of return of refugees. And the main thing, don't forget, is "no preconditions."

The controversy around construction in the settlements draws attention away from the bombshell hiding behind Netanyahu's demand that the Palestinians first recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. As the prime minister himself has said, this is not mere semantics. It is an essential matter from the most sensitive part of the narrative of the conflict. As Dan Meridor, one of the ministers closest to Netanyahu, put it in an interview with Haaretz Magazine (October 23, 2009): "I am not too optimistic that the Palestinian government has given up on the right of return. That would mean conceding the rationale for the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was founded in 1964, three years before the Six-Day War. And Abu Mazen [Abbas] was one of its founders." Meridor, by the way, says that a state that is not the state of all its citizens is not a democratic state.

Some people, for example the previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, believe that with goodwill, sensitivity to the suffering of the refugees and international assistance, the right of return obstacle can be overcome. Speaking at a conference of the Geneva Initiative leadership, Olmert reminded the audience that the PLO had accepted the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which states the solution to the refugee problem must be not only just (based on United Nations Resolution 194), but also agreed-on by all the parties. It will be attained only in the framework of a comprehensive deal that will include all the core issues, first and foremost an arrangement for the holy places in Jerusalem.

The problem of the refugees is not a ball in a game whose purpose is to push the Palestinian adversary (partner?) into a corner and to push away the pressure of the American friend (adversary?) That is a game Israel has no chance of winning.

What will happen if the Palestinians declare they do recognize Israel as the state of the Israelis - take it or leave it? What will Netanyahu do? Will he end the moratorium on construction in the settlements, stop the negotiations on a two-state solution and begin the countdown to the end of the Jewish state?