Brokering With Bibi

A worldly colleague of mine once complained that with the demise of the Soviet-era Pravda, the intellectual joy went out of newspaper reading -- the satisfaction of examining photos for who wasn't on the dais, of studying statements for what wasn't said, in order to reason out the real news. He was too quick to mourn. Reading the text of the State Department's daily press briefing provides nearly the same pleasure and even sheds some light on what Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is up to.

At both Monday's and Wednesday's sessions, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley emphatically refused to comment on reports that Netanyahu has imposed a de facto freeze on building in annexed East Jerusalem. "I'll refer to the Israeli government to enunciate its own policy," Crowley said. Of course, the policy that Netanyahu has publicly enunciated is that Israel will continue to build anywhere it wants in Jerusalem. And Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat denies there's a freeze. Crowley wouldn't comment on that either. As the reporter grilling him pointed out, the Obama administration commented clearly and loudly in March when Israeli officials approved new construction of 1,600 new units in Ramat Shlomo, a neighborhood in annexed East Jerusalem.

So the silence now means something -- apparently, that the administration has agreed that Netanyahu can say whatever he wants about "eternally undivided" Jerusalem, as long as new building plans get stuck in the bureaucracy. That fits with remarks this week by left-wing Jerusalem City Councilor Meir Margalit that the government has quietly put a hold on planning decisions in East Jerusalem.

Pay attention, too, to Crowley's dialogue last week with a reporter about "proximity talks" between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Asked if the administration would regard merely starting the indirect negotiations as a breakthrough, Crowley carefully replied that the goal was "proximity talks where they can address the substance." The addition of those few words is the key. The administration insists that the talks deal with the core issues of a peace agreement, including borders and Jerusalem. Netanyahu has tried to put off negotiations on those issues. But this week he reportedly told U.S. envoy George Mitchell that he would accede to the American demand.

One implication of these diplomatic fine points is that under steady American pressure, Netanyahu is making concessions. President Obama and his Middle East team appear to have learned the lesson of last year's confrontation over a freeze on West Bank settlement-building. That fight ended with Netanyahu publicly proclaiming a "freeze" that hardly slowed construction. This time the administration aims to change what Netanyahu does, rather than what he says.

Another implication, however, is that Netanyahu is giving only the minimum necessary to assuage Washington. He has not reconsidered his basic commitments. Don't get me wrong: Politicians sometimes change. In mid-career, Yitzhak Rabin accepted that Israel would have to recognize the Palestinian national movement and make peace with it. Ehud Olmert, after a lifetime or so on the right, realized that Israel had to give up most of the West Bank. One of Olmert's erstwhile allies compared him at the time to an ultra-Orthodox Jew suddenly turning secular. In theory, Bibi could have a pragmatist epiphany and understand that a two-state solution is the only way to avoid the outcome of a single, binational state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. He could belatedly figure out that Obama is trying to save Israel from disaster.

So far, though, Bibi is still the old Bibi. He is not chained by his right-wing coalition; he could abandon it today and form an alliance with the centrist Tzipi Livni and her Kadimah Party. But he likes his right-wing coalition. Faced with rumblings from the extreme right within his own Likud Party, he has not followed Ariel Sharon's example and initiated a campaign for the party to change direction. (Yes, it is scary when a politician makes Sharon look good in comparison.)

Instead, Netanyahu is likely to do something to reassure his own inner rightist. The First Law of Bibiology is that for every zig there is an equal and opposite zag.

This week, for instance, the State Attorney's Office told the Supreme Court that instead of carrying out demolition orders against a West Bank settlement outpost called Derekh Ha'avot, it was examining whether there were legal grounds for letting the outpost remain in place. Derekh Ha'avot is one of dozens of outposts established in defiance of Israeli law but with the collusion of government agencies. Under the 2003 "road map" for peace, Israel is committed to removing at least some of them. If the government begins legalizing outposts instead, it will be burying that commitment.

If past experience is a guide, such zigzagging won't mollify Likud backbenchers or West Bank settlers. But it will embarrass the Palestinian Authority and delay negotiations. And if the administration is indeed committed to brokering a peace agreement, it will have to confront Netanyahu again. Subtle silences at State Department briefings won't be enough.

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