Everyone knows that the Obama administration’s demands for a settlement freeze are a huge problem for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition in Jerusalem. But they are also a great problem for the Abbas/Fayyad government of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
Why? Because the United States is now seeking some form of compromise, while the Palestinians are seeking a true, unalloyed, immediate, total freeze.
Having failed to bully Netanyahu into a total freeze, U.S. negotiator George Mitchell is said to be asking for a moratorium that would allow completion of all projects already underway, perhaps 2,500–3,000 units. Moreover, that moratorium is said to apply to the West Bank but to be silent about construction in Jerusalem, which would be handled separately. (News reports inform us that the new Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was called to the State Department on July 18 to be browbeaten over new Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. The demand that it cease was promptly rejected by Prime Minister Netanyahu the next day.)
Now, for George Mitchell this may appear to be a decent compromise. For however long the “freeze” lasts, there are no new units started. If the “freeze” lasts long enough — say, six months or a year — there will be a significant and visible reduction in Israeli construction in the West Bank. Mitchell, who is reported to want to leave his negotiator position at the end of 2009, would be able to quit while this “freeze” is in place. As to Jerusalem, he might just say “too hard for now” and tell Arab governments privately that U.S. pressure to stop Israel from building in East Jerusalem will continue.
Why Netanyahu and his government loathe this entire Obama project is clear. Morally, it accepts the argument that Israelis have no right to live in the West Bank (or even some parts of Jerusalem). Politically, agreeing to any sort of “freeze” threatens the governing coalition. And how does Bibi Netanyahu get out of the “freeze”? What’s the exit strategy when the agreed time (Three months? Six? Nine or twelve?) ends — and Obama says, “I just need a bit more time to bring peace and freedom to the Middle East.”
All this is familiar — but look at what the Obama administration has done to its friends in Ramallah as well. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and his negotiator Saeb Erekat are on record demanding a total freeze — including in Jerusalem, without a time limit, all over the West Bank, every settlement, all sorts of buildings. No exceptions for construction now under way, for kindergartens, not even (or, perhaps, especially?) for synagogues. Where do they stand when the United States government announces its deal — allowing several thousand units to be completed and remaining silent on Jerusalem? Compared with the current situation — daily denunciations of settlements by Washington, while Palestinians are asked to do nothing — all of a sudden the U.S. will seem to have switched sides. All of a sudden the actual construction work you see before you is okay, Washington blesses it; and as to Jerusalem there will be no stated limits at all. “There are no middle-ground solutions for the settlement issue: Either settlement activity stops or it doesn’t stop,” Erekat told Voice of Palestine radio last week. Under all the possible compromises, it doesn’t stop — or so it will seem to Erekat and his boss Abbas, and to any Palestinian listening to Hamas’s radio and TV denunciations of such a deal.
Which is why the actual Palestinian position is to pray for Mitchell to fail. If he fails and there is no compromise deal, they are sitting pretty. Washington denounces Jerusalem, bad feeling between them continues, and Obama effectively demands nothing of the Palestinians. Of course, settlement construction continues as well, but the Palestinian leaders aren’t stupid; they know it’s a made-up issue. They know that life in the West Bank is getting better, the economy is improving, the Israelis are removing roadblocks and obstacles to movement — and they know that settlement construction provides badly needed employment for Palestinian construction workers. So, Mitchell’s failure would be sheer heaven for them, while a compromise — well, Erekat said it. Bad news.
Abbas has said a hundred times in the last few months that he will not agree to resume negotiations with Israel unless there is a settlement freeze. The United States will call whatever compromise Mitchell reaches a “settlement freeze” and will then turn the pressure on Abbas to go back to the table — forcing him to eat his words. Either he, too, will have to call any partial moratorium a real freeze, returning to the table while Hamas happily explains that he has once again given away Palestinian rights — or he’ll have to refuse to negotiate, which would anger Obama. Lose-lose.
So, this Obama settlement mania will end up damaging not only Netanyahu but Abbas as well. What a triumph of American diplomacy.
— Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the deputy national security adviser handling the Middle East in the George W. Bush administration.