National Priority Map / The Bibi Zigzag

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now in the position he hates most - looking like a sucker. He took a political risk by freezing settlement construction, and the world yawned. The Palestinians refused to resume negotiations, the Americans responded with apathy and the Europeans declared Jerusalem the capital of two states. There are right-wing demonstrations outside his window and no one is coming to his aid.

So now, having thrown a bone to U.S. President Barack Obama with the settlement freeze, it was time to give the right something: advancing the referendum law, which will make it harder to ratify any final-status deal with the Palestinians or Syrians, and restoring national-priority status to dozens of isolated settlements that lost it years ago. In short, a zigzag.

What is the "national priority" of Yitzhar, Ma'aleh Levona or Har Bracha? Netanyahu has probably never even been to them. Nor are the masses likely to flock there due to the new economic benefits. But it was a small, easy gesture that might mollify settlers' anger and restore quiet to Jerusalem's streets. Or at least to his own Likud party.

And if the world says Netanyahu doesn't want peace? No problem. Tomorrow, he will find something else to give the Americans and the left. And then another zag rightward.

That is how Netanyahu, and in fact all Israeli prime ministers, maintain balance: Every step toward the Palestinians is always accompanied by a countermove toward the right. Menachem Begin evacuated Sinai, but built settlements in the West Bank. Yitzhak Rabin brought Yasser Arafat to the territories, but built bypass roads that bolstered the settlements. Netanyahu left Hebron, but started building Jerusalem's Har Homa neighborhood. Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert offered final-status deals, but built thousands of apartments in the territories.

Netanyahu's decisions, however, eliminate the distinction his predecessors drew between the settlement blocs that Israel wants to keep under any agreement and the isolated settlements on the other side of the separation fence. The freeze applies to all settlements, including the blocs, while national-priority status will be given to dozens of isolated settlements.

His bureau yesterday tried to downplay the national-priority decision, stressing that the benefits will not include housing subsidies, only education and employment assistance. When Ariel Sharon and Olmert promised Washington to end financial incentives in the settlements, they were referring mainly to housing subsidies, the bureau claimed.

But this week's decisions erase the impression left by the settlement freeze. The referendum law indicates that Netanyahu is not willing to withdraw from the Golan or East Jerusalem. At most, he is ready for an interim agreement involving the isolated settlements - those same settlements to which he is now granting economic benefits.

But even that will happen only if he is under unbearable pressure, and opts to sacrifice a few settlements to avoid an imposed solution. Until then, he will continue zigzagging.