Few pointers in US stealth offer to Israel By Victor Kotsev
TEL AVIV - Last week, as the Israeli government announced building plans for
thousands of new housing units in East Jerusalem (and later the West Bank),
there was a moment when the relationship between the United States and Israel
appeared to be on the rocks. "[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu
exploited his US trip to embarrass Obama," an editorial in last Friday's
Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz claimed. "This is a shortsighted approach that
endangers Israel's interests."
In an Asia Times Online article several days earlier, however, I argued that
this was most likely an elaborate bluff, and predicted the interests of the two
countries would converge again.  It appears that this is happening even
sooner than expected, though many questions remain unanswered.
On Saturday news broke of a generous package of incentives that
the American administration had offered Israel in exchange for a three-month
settlement freeze extension. There is a lot of uncertainty still about the
precise parameters of the offer - which Netanyahu claimed was "not final" - but
it involves advanced fighter planes as well as a broad commitment to support
Israel at the United Nations Security Council. The US, moreover, would not seek
further extensions of the construction moratorium.
Reuters reported that Obama promised to ask the US Congress "to approve giving
Israel $3 billion worth of advanced F-35 jets" [in addition to 20 that the
Jewish state already purchased for $2.75 billion earlier this year]. Israeli
analyst Amos Harel describes the acquisition as a present: he attributes to
Netanyahu the information that "the US is now generously offering to double the
number of aircraft without the funding for them being taken from the future
military aid package".
According to another Ha'aretz report, however, the offer involves "a sale"
rather than a gift, which would make it considerably less enticing - especially
having in mind that the Israeli military establishment previously expressed
dismay with the steep price of the F-35 warplanes, and questioned the value of
What could be just as important, however, is a long list of diplomatic
initiatives on which the Americans might have promised support. Most prominent
among these is a commitment to prevent the Palestinians from unilaterally
declaring statehood. Moreover, according to The Cable blog at Foreign Policy,
the National Security Council's top Middle East expert Dan Shapiro on Friday
drew a link between the discussions and a number of other issues.
The latter include "increased US diplomatic opposition [in recent months] to
efforts to delegitimize Israel in international fora, continuing to block
efforts to revive the Goldstone Report [on war atrocities during Israel's
offensive in Gaza in 2008] at the United Nations, promising to block
condemnation of Israel at the United Nations for its raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi
Marmara, defeating resolutions aimed to expose Israel's nuclear program
at the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], and increasing pressure on
Iran and Syria to stop their nuclear and proliferation activities."
Finally, should the peace talks succeed, the Obama administration has
reportedly offered a wide range of security guarantees - including a bilateral
defense treaty. Notably, however, so far there has been no mention of a
long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley (something the
Israelis have previously insisted on).
In exchange, Israel would cease all private construction in the occupied
territories for three months, including housing projects that have been started
since the last moratorium expired. The new freeze, however, would not include
East Jerusalem or public construction in the West Bank, such as schools.
Netanyahu's attempt to sell the compromise to his government was welcomed by
Obama, who commented, "I think it's a signal that he is serious." However, it
was also greeted by heavy opposition at home. "Extending the freeze is a honey
trap," Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon said, and four Likud ministers voted
against that on Saturday evening. Later this week, Netanyahu is expected to
present the offer to the so-called "security cabinet" of 15 members. If he is
successful, the proposal would pass narrowly - according to most analysts, by
seven to six votes, with two abstaining.
The Palestinians also reacted with cautious dismay. The Palestinian president's
spokesman refused to comment until "[Mahmoud] Abbas hears officially from the
American administration what is going on between them and the Israelis", but
chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, "[The Americans] know we have a
major problem in not including East Jerusalem." An unnamed Palestinian official
criticized Obama for "succumbing to Netanyahu's extortions".
In any case, should the moratorium extension pass, this is no guarantee that
the peace talks will progress significantly. The deal, however, could have an
impact on the Palestinian aspiration to declare a state within a year, which
has gained momentum in the past few months. One of the main threats the
Palestinians have issued, and publicly repeated most recently last Friday, is
that they would unilaterally ask the UN to recognize a Palestinian state within
the 1967 borders if the talks fail. Now they might find this scenario blocked
by a practically certain American veto.
The long bargaining process that preceded the package - Netanyahu spent seven
hours talking to United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday,
in a meeting that was originally scheduled to last an hour - suggests that the
compromise did not come about easily.
There are signs that Netanyahu was all along willing to extend the freeze, but
there are also signs that he came under quite a bit of pressure. Until the
exact specifics of the deal are revealed, it will be hard to infer how profound
the confrontation was or who prevailed. A number of well-placed analysts,
moreover, have suggested that there might be some far-reaching ramifications
that will not become apparent in the near future.
Thus, it is worth keeping track of to what extent the offer is better for
Israel than the draft letter Netanyahu rejected last month.  From what we
know, the basic outline is more or less similar. Instead of 60 days, as
stipulated in the September letter, Israel would implement a freeze of 90 days
- something that would be more than offset by the gift of 20 new stealth
warplanes, if indeed it is a gift.
On the other hand, it may be that the Obama administration forced its way on
the Israeli prime minister with unspecified threats rather than with
enticements. "The prime minister rejected the offer when it was made before the
US mid-term elections, but now he understands that the game is up and he has to
fall in line," Aluf Benn writes for Ha'aretz .
Another important question is whether Obama also has some gifts in store for
the Palestinians. According to Israeli intelligence-analysis site Debka, if the
negotiations do not achieve a breakthrough on borders within three months,
Obama would "take the initiative of delineating those borders and present [his]
own map to both sides before the three months are up". This would most likely
involve evacuating a number of Israeli settlements from the West Bank and could
come as a tough blow to Netanyahu.
The final million-dollar question is how all this relates to the Iranian crisis
- the other focus of the discussions between Netanyahu and his American
counterparts. Writes Aluf Benn: "The fighters the United States has promised
Netanyahu are not meant to protect Israel from the Palestinians, but to bolster
Israeli deterrence capabilities vis-a-vis Iran ... It's hard to believe the
Americans offered to provide the Israel Air Force with such advanced weapons in
exchange for just a three-month settlement freeze. It's more likely that they
offered to strengthen Israeli deterrence capabilities in order to prevent a war
in the region."
As a whole, the deal that is shaping up suggests that for now the Israeli prime
minister has avoided a row with the American administration, and that his
belligerent posture of the last weeks was a strategy to sell the compromise at
home. Its future implications, however, are yet unclear, and will perhaps
remain so for some time.