Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Settlements

With the entry of Yair Lapid, a popular Israeli journalist and TV personality, into politics, there's been growing talk of fresh elections in Israel. Naturally, the left/center-left opposition to the present center-right/right governing coalition has been working overtime to stoke the fires of voter dissent, discontent and despair in order to unseat the present Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. And while it's too early to tell whether his coalition really will fall, it may be worthwhile to take a look back and examine Netanyahu's performance over these past three years in power.

First, let's consider the Netanyahu's handling of the settlement issue, which has so defined his term, with implications for Israel's domestic politics and international posture.

Netanyahu's honeymoon in office was cut short by President Obama's Cairo Address which, while emphasizing America's unshakable commitment to Israeli security, made it an explicit, public American demand that Israel immediately cease all settlement construction. As the President put it, in a formulation no US President had used with Israel before, much less from a podium in an Arab capital, while addressing the Arab world, "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements."

As dumbstruck Israeli officials tried to downplay the remarks and sought clarifications, the Obama Administration hammered the point home. Senior officials reiterated that, seemingly overnight, the United States would not accept any exceptions for settlement construction, even those which complement "natural growth", such as schools and basic infrastructure. The building of a new porch in some remote Jewish community in the Shomron was now a matter of international consequence. The Palestinians quickly pocketed Obama's demands, making them a precondition for negotiations and thus effectively freezing the peace process for three years.

The crisis was further exacerbated when  the Americans attempted to walk away from understandings the Bush Administration reached with Prime Minister Sharon regarding territorial swaps and a continued presence for Israeli settlements beyond pre-1967 lines. Never before had an American government walked away from commitments its predecessors had made to Israel. The shock rippled through Israel's officialdom, as senior figures, including from previous governments, scrambled to preserve Bush-era understandings which underpinned core Israeli political and security policies.

Netanyahu's response to what is now, with the benefit of hindsight, universally considered Obama's well-intentioned but naive, stumbling plunge into Middle East peacemaking, is classic "Bibi". The Prime Minister negotiated hard with Obama, but so too with the settlement movement and its many supporters in his coalition. The ten month settlement moratorium on new construction, which excluded Jerusalem in theory, but effectively included it in practice, was an unprecedented Israeli concession. As George Mitchell has recently commented:
When we negotiated that agreement and announced it, the Palestinians rejected it. They described it as "worse than useless." That was the phrase they used. Nine months later, when they finally entered negotiations, they said, "Extension of the moratorium is indispensable." So in a period of nine months, what was described as worse than useless was transformed into an indispensable element for continuation.
The Palestinians allowed the settlement freeze to run out, deliberately attempting to generate a bilateral crisis between the US and Israel over its continuation. With Netanyahu holding firm, the Obama Administration finally understood the precarious mess in which it trapped itself and, wiser for the experience, finally backed off its emphasis on settlement construction.

As their gambit to manipulate the Americans into manhandling the Israelis imploded, the Palestinians were left befuddled by Bibi's political and diplomatic agility (just ask Hussein Ibish). With the end of the moratorium, construction in Israeli settlements resumed. And while the rate of construction in Israel's West Bank settlements has remained tepid, though steady, the pace of building in Jerusalem appears to have quickened, if anything. Somewhat remarkably, and despite dire warnings to the contrary, Netanyahu kept his promise to the settlement movement, and his coalition intact, without causing a rupture of relations with Washington, at a time of unprecedented, withering international pressure.

The Israeli right oozes and gushes about having "strength" and electing a "strong leader". Speaking as a supporter of settlements, I simply cannot see, given the constraints, how another Israeli Prime Minister could have handled this situation better. Not only has the settlement issue been put to diplomatic rest for the moment, but it has been effectively discredited as a tool of political pressure against Israel. New demands to restrict settlement growth are now seen for what they always were: a source of empowerment for Palestinian rejectionism and thus harmful to productive peace negotiations. That's an impressive turnaround from Obama's Cairo Address; a turnaround Netanyahu fought and bled for, to turn a phrase, and a victory for which he deserves the credit.

Part II of this series will be released on Wednesday.

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