Less than a month after they began, Middle East peace talks are in trouble over Israel's refusal to extend its 10-month-old curbs on new West Bank settlement — in defiance of President Barack Obama's explicit request, delivered last week at the United Nations.
A magic formula may yet be found, and the Palestinians, despite threats to bolt the talks, may in the end resign themselves to the renewal of limited construction. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has given last-ditch talks another week — and then the 22-member Arab League convenes, presumably to give the Palestinians cover for any decision they take.
Whatever happens then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's willingness to risk a breakdown of talks so supposedly crucial, embarrassing the U.S. leader at so inopportune a time, raises questions whether he can deliver the much more far-reaching concessions Israel would have to make to end a century of conflict.
Why wasn't ban renewed?
Why did Netanyahu do it?
It's a matter of credibility, goes the official line. Since the day he declared the settlement "moratorium" in November 2009, Netanyahu has repeatedly asserted it was a one-time gesture. Aides say he must stick to his word.
In local political caricature, one charge that has stuck to Netanyahu is that he buckles under pressure. Heading into negotiations where he'll be pressed to shed his very core beliefs, Netanyahu needs to jettison that image.
Then there is the governing coalition, where an overwhelming majority opposes extending the "freeze." This includes Netanyahu's own Likud Party — the senior coalition member — as well as partners such as Yisrael Beiteinu, the hard-line party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself a settler.
Whether they would actually bring Netanyahu down now is an open question. Disgruntled pro-settler parties have done this in the past, over lesser affronts to their cause: to Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 and to Netanyahu himself in 1999. Both times they ended up with a moderate government they liked even less, but neither outcome produced much game-changing introspection.
Still, it seems as if Netanyahu could have protected himself against political extortion by securing the support of the centrist Kadima Party, which is about equal to Likud in numbers of parliament members.
Its leader, Tzipi Livni — despite an acrimonious personal relationship with the premier — said again this week that she would support peace moves, and she would find it difficult not to back Netanyahu at least tacitly when he's taking risks for peace.
Ultimately, Netanyahu appears to have gambled that he didn't need to upset his partners — and a core constituency like the settlers — over this particular issue, so early in what promises to be a tough political season.
In governing circles, the thinking — or hope — is that while Obama may be angry, he'll take no punitive action that would alienate U.S. supporters of Israel with midterm elections two months away.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters that special Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell would depart Washington on Monday evening and meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials later in the week. He said the administration is "disappointed but we remain focused on our long-term objective."
"Obama took a big risk, and if these talks collapse before November, it will hurt him politically," said Alon Liel, a left-leaning analyst and former senior diplomat. "Israel is a strong country militarily and economically and cannot be pressured too much. Obama has gone above and beyond, and there's a limit."
In other words: Why risk alienating a powerful group like U.S. supporters of Israel — if even the Palestinians are ultimately going along?
Indeed, the moratorium expired Sunday with Netanyahu urging Abbas to stick with the talks. On Monday in Paris, Abbas promised to avoid "any quick reactions" and said he would wait at least a week before deciding whether to pull out.
That gives U.S. mediators time to broker a compromise, in contacts that are continuing in secret.
Last week it seemed Israel might agree to maintain the slowdown in some places — its deputy premier was urging the Palestinians to accept such a "compromise" and it was looking like they might. But Netanyahu now seems uninterested in this. Gaining currency is the notion of an undeclared slowdown in which settlement expansion is theoretically possible, but practically impeded by administrative machinations. Netanyahu already has said that he will keep settlement activity far below maximum levels.
Part of the equation is that the slowdown is mostly symbolic, and the Palestinians know it.
Construction predating November 2009 was allowed to proceed, hundreds of units were approved through an "exceptions" procedure, and the result was that months into the "freeze," the number of settler homes being built — by the government's own figures — had fallen by a mere 10 percent.
Speaking Monday with The Associated Press, senior Cabinet minister Silvan Shalom noted that in past peace talks — including those conducted by Abbas himself — Israel continued to build settlements. "Even his predecessor (Yasser) Arafat negotiated with all the Israeli prime ministers and never asked them to freeze settlement," Shalom said.
Others note that Israel can dismantle settlements if there is an agreement, as it did in the Sinai desert after reaching peace with Egypt, or more recently in the Gaza Strip while unilaterally pulling out.
Israelis hope that given the relative insignificance of the moratorium on the ground, the Palestinians will bitterly complain but ultimately accept the new-old reality — keeping their eye on the far bigger prize of independent statehood that might await them down the road.
Obama has set an ambitious goal of a one-year timetable to reach a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement. It is a goal that has eluded a succession of Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. leaders in two decades of fitful peace efforts, requiring the sides to solve a series of puzzles that to date have frustrated the finest diplomatic minds:
- The Palestinians insist on east Jerusalem as their capital, including the Old City with its holy sites. Yet the city is a kaleidoscope of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods that defies clean partition, and it is hard to find many Israelis who can envision Palestinian — or even international — border guards atop the Old City walls, literally a stone's throw from their own capital's main shopping street, bar districts and city hall.
- Israelis hope the Palestinians will abandon their demand that refugees from the 1948 war that established the Jewish state — along with millions of descendants — resettle in their old homes and communities. After all, preserving the Jewish majority — more than the quest for peace — is for many the reason they're willing to cede the West Bank. But the "Right of Return" is a key part of the Palestinian narrative, and it may prove resilient.
- There are 300,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank — a tripling in 20 years — and Palestinians want them gone. Israelis are hoping for flexibility and may get it. There are signs the Palestinians will agree to land swaps enabling communities very close to the Israel-West Bank border to become part of the Jewish state. But even the most creative redrawing of the border will leave Israel needing to move 100,000 settlers.
On top of this, Abbas stayed in office past his term, without elections, and does not control the Gaza Strip, which has a substantial chunk of the Palestinian population not in exile — meaning Israelis will be asked to make significant sacrifices for a deal with a leader whose legitimacy is under a cloud.
Interestingly, the idea of a Palestinian state is no longer controversial. In the 1990s, even a relative moderate like Yitzhak Rabin — lionized as a founding father of peace — could hardly bring himself to utter the words. Now even Netanyahu has accepted the notion, albeit under bruising pressure from Obama.
Perhaps Netanyahu calculates nothing will come of the effort. After all, twice before the Palestinians have rejected what most Israelis considered truly far-reaching statehood offers — from Ehud Barak in 2001 and from Ehud Olmert in 2008. In his appeal to Abbas, Netanyahu — perhaps the unlikeliest peacemaker of the bunch — maintained he is committed to trying again.
"Let us proceed in accelerated, sincere and continuous talks in order to bring about an historic peace framework agreement within one year," he said.
Dan Perry is chief of bureau for Israel and the Palestinian territories, and a special international editor of The Associated Press.