When It Comes to the Settlement Freeze, Netanyahu Maintaining Poker Face

What will the Prime Minister do? He'll wait for the last minute. Anything he said now would be used to increase the pressure on him.

Some political crises come as a surprise and overcoming them involves a high price. Others are expected and can be prepared for without causing damage.

The first kind includes events like the building plan in East Jerusalem that was published during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Jerusalem and infuriated President Barack Obama. Or the flotilla to Gaza, which was expected, but its interception turned into an unforeseen entanglement. In both cases, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was lambasted abroad.

The construction freeze in the settlements, which is due to expire in a month, belongs to the second kind. The deadline is known in advance, inviting pressure on the prime minister from all directions. The settlers want to build, the Palestinians are threatening to quit the peace talks, the right-wing ministers are demanding that we revoke the suspension and Labor ministers are pushing for an extension. Even Obama said "the settlements must stop."

Netanyahu knew the freeze would eventually end and he would have to find an alternative. He has several goals - to remain in power, keep his coalition intact, prevent a rebellion among Likud MKs, appease Obama and prevent the talks with the Palestinians from collapsing.

What will he do? He'll wait for the last minute. If he already has a compromise formula he won't disclose it before the deadline. Anything he said now would be used to increase the pressure on him.

So Netanyahu will keep mum and let his ministers talk. Both Dan Meridor and Avigdor Lieberman talk of a "differential freeze." Likud ministers like Gideon Sa'ar and Michael Eitan agree to this. Everyone agrees the sweeping construction freeze cannot be continued and that the large settlement blocs should be distinguished from the isolated settlements beyond the separation fence. Construction will resume in the blocs and be frozen in the isolated settlements - or continue on a small scale.

Rabin also distinguished in the 1992 election campaign between what he called the "security settlements" (the blocs ) and the "political" ones. Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert reached quiet understandings with the U.S. administration to continue building in the blocs and freeze construction in the settlements beyond the fence.

Netanyahu's compromise solution will probably involve construction on demand in the blocs and freezing construction in Elon Moreh, Yitzhar and south of Mount Hebron. This formula has a majority in the cabinet and forum of seven senior ministers. Now Netanyahu must give the Palestinians something so they don't quit the direct talks.