Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will back down. Another week, another month, and he will give into American pressure and will be forced to accept the two-state solution and also agree to some sort of concessions on settlements. So far there has been no real negotiation between Israel and the Obama administration, just an exchange of declarations. There are no personal links between the Prime Minister's Bureau and the White House. Only after Thursday, following the "conciliatory address" of U.S. President Barack Obama to the Arab and Muslim world in Cairo, will the real discussion begin. Or maybe not, and Israel will continue to be hit in the head until Obama is satisfied.
The Americans are demanding complete cessation of construction in the settlements, or in the language of President Obama, "no settlements." Netanyahu insists on "natural growth," but has no troops. Not one of Israel's supporters in the U.S. has stood up against the popular president to defend the construction of a new neighborhood in Ma'aleh Adumim or a home for a young couple in Itzhar. At most, they might ask Obama to be a little more gentle and not bash Israel.
The repetition of statements by Obama and senior administration officials, calling for complete cessation of settlement activity, have placed the president in a position from which he will find it difficult to pull back. Henceforth, every approval of a construction plan in a settlement will be regarded as a personal challenge to the president, just about equivalent to the North Korean nuclear tests.
Obama believes in interests, and his supreme interest is the rehabilitation of ties between the U.S. and the Arab and Muslim worlds. George W. Bush was perceived to be a pawn in Israel's hand, and Obama must show he is not like his predecessor. A freeze on settlements is his gift to his Saudi and Egyptian hosts. Enforcing the freeze will be his test of credibility.
The overt dispute with Israel is meant to bolster his image in Arab eyes. If Netanyahu would have agreed immediately to his demand, Obama would have lost points. He wants to come to Cairo after being seen as having hit Israel's right-wing prime minister on the head.
The American determination caught Netanyahu and his aides by surprise, and they were neither party to the drafts of the president's speech nor were they able to influence its content. The PM's Bureau is finding it difficult to function and is barely able to respond to telephone calls, much less put together a counter-spin. Netanyahu sent the "dovish" ministers, Dan Meridor and Ehud Barak, to the U.S. in an effort to explain it was not possible to freeze it all because that is not realistic. The Americans have not budged.
The relatively good news for Netanyahu this week came in an interview Obama gave to the BBC, in which he discussed a return to the road map and made demands of the Palestinians and the Arab states. Obama said patience is needed, and essentially granted Netanyahu a chance for another meeting, at which the prime minister will have to accept an American diktat.
It will not be simple. From Israel's point of view freezing the settlements is not merely a slogan but raises real complexities, even before the protests begin and the settlers and rightist parties begin their resistance. The government is finding it difficult to evacuate outposts, so how will it enforce a freeze on construction?
Netanyahu will do everything to avoid this confrontation and will therefore have to give up his many years of opposition to the idea of a Palestinian state. He will then hope that Arab refusals will bog the entire process down and will save him the trouble of having to discuss really difficult issues like evacuating settlements, Jerusalem and the refugees.
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