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    Middle East
     Apr 28, 2010
Netanyahu plays a complex game
By Victor Kotsev

"I want to work with Netanyahu," proclaimed Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, quoted by the Jerusalem Post. "Try me," he said, noting his hopes that the Arab League would back his plan to resume proximity talks on May 1. "I say on behalf of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, that we are prepared for an agreement." He emphasized that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was "chosen by the Israeli people and elected by the Knesset [parliament]," and because of that it was his "duty to work with him".

This spectacular change of tone on the part of the man who, exactly a month ago, ruled out any form of negotiations without a settlement freeze,[1] came on the heels of massive pressure from the American administration and an invitation for him to pay the White House an official visit next month. Talks, albeit indirect in


format initially, are scheduled to restart in mid-May.

There are three main explanations of this unexpected behavior, and they all likely contribute in varying degrees to the developments. Perhaps, in a manner characteristic of Middle Eastern bargaining, Abbas has been bluffing all along with his obstinacy, and now he has judged that the most propitious moment to strike a deal has come (he also likely does not wish to appear as the main obstacle to peace). Maybe he is feeling pressure from his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad - a darling of the American administration who recently became the focus of much media attention with the declaration of his intention to establish a state next year, negotiations or not.[2] However, if a flurry of recent reports is to be believed, is also possible that he simply got some vague form of what he has been asking for all along: a complete construction halt in all territories beyond the Green Line, including in Jerusalem.

An official Israeli declaration of such a concession would be inconceivable. To be sure, Netanyahu and his coalition allies firmly denied any possibility of a construction freeze in Jerusalem. ''To stop all construction - Jewish construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem - is totally, totally a non-starter,'' said Netanyahu in an interview for ABC a week ago. ''Let's get into the room and negotiate peace without preconditions.''

However, it is possible that the Israeli government made some sort of a short-term pledge to US President Barack Obama. "The Obama administration met Israel halfway on its demand for a construction freeze in East Jerusalem, accepting that Israel would quietly suspend building licenses and other permits for just four weeks," writes Debka File.

While the time frame - four weeks - provided by the somewhat controversial intelligence analysis web site remains difficult to confirm, evidence points to a "gentleman's agreement" between the leaders of the two states.[3] "Construction requiring the approval of Jerusalem's district planning committee has been on hold for more than a month in all parts of the city due to concerns about a new crisis in ties with the United States," Haaretz reported two weeks ago.

It is even likely that Netanyahu won acquiescence from his right-wing coalition partners: a very striking development, which would indicate that any such concession would be short-lived. "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's key coalition partners seemed to give a tacit nod Thursday to the possibility of a building freeze within Jerusalem itself, despite a reiteration by Netanyahu that no such freeze would be enacted," the Jerusalem Post said last Friday.

The Israeli prime minister seems to be playing a complex game. On the one hand, he does not wish to appear as a peace refusenik. He may even be prepared to strike a magnificent deal, much to the surprise of everybody, perhaps even himself. If we trust Israeli President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, it is still possible that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have a Hollywood ending.[4]

On the other hand, however, he continues to be deeply skeptical of the possibility of peace, and to prepare carefully for a strike against Iran. In fact, by going so far out of his way to make concessions (including, reputedly, releasing prisoners and removing more roadblocks), Netanyahu is also taking up Obama's challenge for the moral high ground in case of a future confrontation between them (see US warms to strike on Iran)[April 22].

This could have profound implications in case of an Israeli attack on Iran. Given the widespread support which Israel enjoys, the Obama administration finds itself embroiled in an uphill public relations campaign every time it decides to confront the Israeli government openly.

In a sense, Netanyahu is setting up a bargaining strategy to use with Obama in case he chooses to go to war without American blessing: the settlement halt and progress in the negotiations will continue for as long as support on Iran is provided. This is, importantly, a compromise he can sell domestically as well, since the Iranian nuclear program is widely perceived in Israel as a major existential challenge facing the Jewish State. Many of the Arab states, too, perceive Iran as a threat, and would be happy to see Israel destroy its nuclear program.

Moreover, this bargaining chip can easily be converted into public relations capital in case any side - the American, Palestinian, or even one of his domestic coalition partners - decides to bail in the last moment. For example, if Israel strikes Iran and Obama takes a tough line against his ally at the United Nations, he would be left open to domestic political attacks that he abandoned an ally, broke his promise to stop Iran from becoming nuclear, and essentially buried the peace process. Not an easy legacy for a Nobel Peace Prize laureate to live with.

Such developments would be disastrous for Obama in two ways: firstly, congress is sympathetic toward Israel and may choose to take foreign policy into its own hands in an extreme situation. As it is, many senators and representatives are already unhappy with the amount of pressure the White House exerted on Israel over East Jerusalem construction. "We are writing to reaffirm our commitment to the unbreakable bond that exists between our country and the State of Israel and to express to you our deep concern over recent tension," reads a bipartisan letter, signed by 337 Representatives, or roughly three quarters of the house, sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the height of the crisis last month.

Secondly, with congressional elections approaching in November and a contested campaign shaping up, a majority of American voters disapprove of further US pressure on Israel. According to a recent study quoted by Haaretz:[5]

''44% of respondents disapproved of Obama's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as opposed to 35% who approved… Among Jewish respondents, the lack of support was more marked, with 67% expressing disapproval of Obama's Middle East policies and only 28% approving."
Even fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, a man whom Obama deeply admires, publicly defended the Israeli government before the White House. Given this, and given the importance Obama attaches to the support of the American Jewish community (see, for example, Obama to U.S. Jews: Nothing will distance us from Israel ), it is easy to explain the recent thaw in relations, and it is difficult to imagine a permanent break up, even in a worst-case scenario.

The future, nevertheless, remains difficult to predict. Such is the nature of the bargaining game currently going on, that it is hard to take comfort in positive developments such as Abbas' expressed desire to negotiate. Judging by the sacrifices, the stakes are clearly rising. This, in turn, bodes a dramatic finale. It remains to be seen whether Peres' prediction for a Hollywood-style happy end will hold, or whether the drama will turn into a tragedy.

1. Abbas rules out peace talks without settlement freeze
2. Palestinian PM to Haaretz: We will have a state next year
3. Obama offered Netanyahu a gentlemen's agreement on Jerusalem
4. Peres to Kouchner: Talks will have 'Hollywood' ending
5. U.S.: Return to peace talks not yet in sight

Victor Kotsev is a freelance journalist and political analyst with expertise in the Middle East. (Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Apr 26, 2010)


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