AJC Mideast Briefing: Ninety Days?

Ed Rettig, Acting Director, AJC-Jerusalem

November 18, 2010

The U.S. proposal for a ninety-day building freeze in the territories is a riddle. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Secretary of State Clinton evidently hammered out an American proposal Netanyahu believes he can get through his cabinet, one that would have Israel freeze settlement construction for ninety days in a one-off deal that includes American incentives. These, according to Israel's Yediot Aharonot, are an agreement to "veto all UN Security Council and international resolutions that are critical of Israel or unilaterally advance Palestinian statehood," and step up the fight against the delegitimization of Israel; a request to Congress to "approve the supply of 20 stealth fighter jets worth $3 billion"; and "additional and wider security guarantees when an agreement is reached with the Palestinians."

Despite the reports, Netanyahu told his inner cabinet that the American conditions had not been finalized (as of Sunday). Israel awaits a written document from Washington. The American delay in providing such a document may be due to Palestinian objections to some provisions, particularly that the freeze will evidently not apply in Jerusalem. Here are a few of the conundrums raised by the American proposal:
  • What is the U.S. trying to achieve by pushing for this ninety-day freeze? There is always the possibility-although currently no reliable evidence-that the parties have worked something out behind the scenes, and we stand on the cusp of dramatic developments. Some pro-Likud observers, however, suggest that the U.S. initiative is not aimed at moving peace forward, but is rather another attempt by the Administration to bring down Netanyahu. As for the three "incentives" to Israel to comply with the freeze, do they really reflect the often repeated American commitment to keep the "security of Israel paramount?" The Economist had a pointed headline: "Is America bribing Bibi or blackmailing him?" The British newsmagazine noted that making the incentives conditional on an Israeli freeze could be an indirect threat to withdraw that support if Israel does not play ball. But to what end?
  • How will the Israeli right respond? The settlers and their supporters are gearing up to oppose the proposal. However, they understand that the current coalition is probably the best they can expect. If a coalition crisis occurs and Netanyahu can hold his own Likud together, the loss of parliamentary votes from the possible exit of the right-leaning Yisrael Beitenu, HaBayit Hayehudi and Shas could be matched by the entrance of Kadima, with its 28 Knesset seats creating a more dovish coalition. Alternatively, should the right wing of Likud split off, it would not be able to pull together a governing majority in the 120-seat Knesset. The Israeli right well remembers that it brought down Netanyahu's first government in 1999, and the result was the Barak government and precisely the policies the right wing wished to prevent. Meantime, the big winner from the American proposal in the short term seems to be Shas. Votes in the cabinet for and against the American proposal are very close, and Netanyahu's success appears to hinge on the support of this Sefardi Orthodox party. Shas's increased leverage comes just as the national budget is up for parliamentary approval. Under law, if the budget does not pass by the end of December, there must be new elections. (Legal maneuvers could buy another two or three months, but the danger to the current coalition is clear.) And if Israel goes to elections, there will be no peace process for months.
  • What do the Palestinians want? One recent poll aimed at discovering the priorities of "the Palestinian in the street" asked respondents to name the single most important issue in their minds. Only 15.5 percent cited ending the occupation (22.4 percent-the economy; 18 percent-Hamas/Fatah reconciliation; 9.4 percent-ending the siege of Gaza; 6.6 percent-settlements; 4.9 percent-Jerusalem.) The results may explain a great deal about the PA's foot-dragging that has been so frustrating to the Administration. The PA leadership wasted most of the ten-month building freeze and shows no enthusiasm for the proposed ninety-day freeze. Perhaps it knows all too well their constituents' preferences. Perhaps the large-scale international subsidies that now drive impressive economic growth in the PA may be having the perverse effect of delaying Palestinian recognition of the urgency of peacemaking.
In short, nothing is clear about the purpose and prospects of the American proposal. Churchill once described Soviet policy as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." One wonders how the master of memorable formulations would describe the request for a ninety-day building freeze.
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