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    Middle East
     Nov 16, 2010

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. [1] 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 further purchases.

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. [2] 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.

1. Bluff and bluster over East Jerusalem, Asia Times Online, November 9, 2010.
2. Dear Prime Minister: U.S. Efforts to Keep the Peace Process on Track, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 29, 2010.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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