In Olmert's Footsteps

The understanding taking shape between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration on the freezing of settlements makes one wonder: What was the reason for changing governments in Jerusalem?

The understanding taking shape between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration on the freezing of settlements makes one wonder: What was the reason for changing governments in Jerusalem? Why was all that energy invested in an election campaign if Netanyahu was going to end up behaving like his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and is willing to limit the "right of Jews to live anywhere in the Land of Israel"? Has Netanyahu also given up on the right-wing ideology on which he was nurtured in his father's house in return for a group photograph with Presidents Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas?

Olmert agreed to participate in the Annapolis Conference in November 2007 after he had made his policy on settlements clear to the Bush administration: construction anywhere in Jerusalem; development in the large settlement blocs (around Jerusalem, Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel); in settlements outside the blocs, there would be construction only in zones where building had already taken place; the outposts would be removed in line with a promise made in the days of Ariel Sharon.

When he returned from Annapolis, Olmert approved the building of thousands of new housing units in the territories, mostly around Jerusalem; a de facto freeze was applied outside the major settlement blocs, even if it was not declared publicly. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who disliked the massive construction in the settlement blocs, made do with voicing a weak protest for the record. Olmert also asked Bush to cut him a break on the evacuation of the outposts. "Sure, we promised," he told him, according to Israel's versions of things, "but shouldn't we focus on negotiations toward a permanent settlement of the conflict, instead of entering a confrontation with the right wing because of a few prefab houses?" Bush was convinced.

Now Netanyahu is putting forth a similar formula: Unlimited construction in Jerusalem, controlled construction in the settlement blocs, and a few months' halt in construction starts outside of them, except for public buildings; and a vague promise to evacuate the outposts. The talk about evacuating the outposts will go on, mostly in order to give political cover to Labor for staying in the coalition. But like Sharon and Olmert before them, Netanyahu and Ehud Barak will explain that what is important is focusing on the peace talks and not taking a chance on a domestic confrontation for something trivial.

Like Netanyahu, the Obama administration is behaving like its predecessor. The Israeli announcements on new construction in East Jerusalem and in the settlement blocs were met with weak American condemnation. The White House expressed "regret" in response to Netanyahu's announcement that 500 new housing units would be built in the territories. What are they "regretting" exactly? Did President Obama shed a tear? Did his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, utter one of the juicy curses for which he is notorious?

The standard dictionary of modern Hebrew, edited by Abraham Even-Shoshan, offers two meanings for the word "havana" ("understanding"). One is "agreement between two sides"; the other, "the ability to identify with the other and with his point of view." The understandings on the settlements fall into the latter category. Not an agreement but an understanding of the political problems of the other. Obama wants to renew the peace process, as he had promised, and is willing to pay with what appears to be limited Israeli construction beyond the Green Line. Netanyahu needs U.S. support in general and especially against Iran, and is willing to pay for it by freezing construction of housing in settlements beyond the security barrier, and in places where there is no real demand. Construction of public buildings, like classrooms and clinics, will also continue in isolated settlements, in order to demonstrate that Netanyahu has not given up on them.

There is still the problem of E-1, the empty area between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim, where 3,500 housing units are planned for construction. As far as the right wing is concerned, their construction is a test of Netanyahu's ability to stand firm against the Americans, and this is the reason for the ceremony held there Monday. The Palestinians and the Israeli left-wing groups view construction in E-1 as threatening to cut off East Jerusalem from the West Bank, and thus a development that would foil the establishment of a future Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital. The Americans have to date prevented construction there, but Olmert too had told them that the neighborhood of Mevasseret Adumim would be built in the future, so that Ma'aleh Adumim does not become an isolated enclave.

So, what has changed since Olmert? Mainly one thing: the declaration that there is a freeze on construction will, this time, be a public one, and it is meant to foster normalization efforts with the Arab states. Which is also what worries Netanyahu: What will he do if, at the end of the period allotted for a freeze, he gets nothing in return? Will he resume construction, against Obama's wishes, or will he be made to look like a sucker who gave up something for nothing? This dilemma remains unresolved for now, and it will continue to burden the prime minister.