Freezing Netanyahu

"There must be more here than meets the eye," friends and colleagues have been saying about the deal that Hillary Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu reached for a new three-month freeze on West Bank settlement building. How could Clinton and her boss be willing to pay so much -- 20 new F-35s, a guaranteed American veto in the Security Council on recognizing unilateral Palestinian independence -- for so little? Surely Obama and Clinton must be up to something.

Actually, I'm beginning to suspect that they are up to something. But before I explain, two provisos. The first is that there's a common psychological error among smart people: When they see other smart people doing what look like folly, they assume that a hidden, complex plan has got to be at work. Yet as historian Barbara Tuchman taught us, intelligent leaders do sometimes march, eyes wide- open, into folly, rendering moot all the complex rationalizations of how this dumb-looking act will lead to wonderful results.

The second proviso is that in diplomacy, there's always more going on than reaches the headlines. The point of diplomatic leaks is to bend public opinion, not to let us in on the facts. That seven-hour meeting between Clinton and Netanyahu? In five or 10 years, when they write their memoirs, we'll get selective, self-serving versions of what was said. In 30 years or so, the transcripts may be declassified. For a journalist, this is one more motivation to live a long time: One day, you'll get to find out how completely you misread things.

With that nod to humility, let me return to the deal. Based on the latest unreliable reports, two parts of it are not quite what they seem: what the Obama administration has offered Israel and what the administration is asking in return. The combined significance of these two parts is that Netanyahu's compulsive settlement building has him in a very tight spot.

The American incentives, we've heard, include those 20 advanced war planes, a pledge to veto anti-Israel measures in the Security Council for the next year and to prevent international supervision of Israel's nuclear installations, and more pressure on Iran to stop nuclear-arms development. Look at that list carefully. The offer of the planes is not exactly unusual in U.S.-Israeli relations. It fits the consistent policy since 1967 of giving Israel the means to defend itself, so that the United States will not have to. Providing arms is also a way of creating jobs stateside. It's likely that the F-35 deal was already in the works and has now been made contingent on Israeli actions.

As for the diplomatic moves, these are all things that Washington is already doing. In fact, "keeping up pressure on Iran" is a backward way of saying, "not answering your request to send in our Air Force." As for American vetoes in the Security Council, this is an old tradition. As Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea noted this week, "A tradition is difficult to break. A clause in a contract, however, can be broken," if the other party hasn't kept its side of the agreement.

In other words, the carrots are really sticks. The U.S. offer translates as, "When Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad carries out his plan to declare a state next year, you want us to veto U.N. recognition? Stop the cement-mixers. You want us to keep the inspectors away from your reactor? Please see the instructions above."

These are very significant threats. Are they worth wasting on a three-month, nonrenewable settlement freeze?

Look again at the other side of the deal. Renewing the freeze is intended to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. For Israel to get those "incentives," the administration reportedly requires that the first subject on the agenda be the permanent borders between Israel and Palestine -- apparently with the goal that both sides sign off on them even before negotiating the rest of a peace agreement. The logic is simple: "Mr. Netanyahu, you want to keep building settlements without them getting in the way of peace? Once you've agreed with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas on borders, you can build any part of the West Bank that you're going to keep. Then you can go to negotiate the rest of the peace agreement."

(Clinton's statement after her meeting with Netanyahu indicates that the administration is sticking with the principle that came out of previous peace talks: Israel will have to give up some of its land in return for any West Bank acreage it keeps.)

In a radio interview this week, Netanyahu's rival and vice premier, Silvan Shalom, explained why he opposed the American plan. Washington's demand to agree on borders immediately, he said, meant that Israel would give up its most significant bargaining chip in quick negotiations, before dealing with the other final-status issues -- Palestinian refugees and the right of return; Jerusalem and holy places; security arrangements. "We are talking about a decision to give away our territorial asset, which may be the only asset in our hands, while other issues of final status will remain open," he said. Unusually enough, Shalom has a reasonable point, as far as it goes. This would be a terrible way for Israel to conduct peace negotiations. What Shalom has missed is that the administration plan comes in response to the Netanyahu government going into collective delirium tremens every time it is asked to stop building settlements.

Besides that, the latest leaks (in Hebrew) say that Washington has never exactly promised that these three months will be the last freeze it requests. Perhaps Netanyahu did not quite understand what Clinton was telling him during those seven hours. Perhaps the claim that this would be the final freeze was spin intended to persuade his political allies to support the deal. If so, it didn't work. One of the "clarifications" that Netanyahu now wants from Washington is a commitment that Israel won't be asked for a further concession.

If Obama and Clinton avoid "clarifying" anything of that sort, Netanyahu will be in a very tight squeeze. If he wins Cabinet approval for the American plan, he will be under heavy pressure to agree on boundaries before reaching a full peace accord. If his government rejects America's offer, he will stand responsible before the Israeli public for possible Security Council ratification of Palestinian statehood, for not getting the F-35s, perhaps even for some very curious international inspectors asking for a good look at Israeli reactors.

Netanyahu has two obvious options for avoiding this dilemma: He could impose an open-ended, complete freeze on all settlement construction in occupied territory, including East Jerusalem, until a final-status agreement is signed. Or he could strive to reach such a deal in the next three months, in order to get his money's worth for withdrawal. This shouldn't be as hard as it sounds. The shape of an agreement has been clear for years. Starting with the unofficial Geneva Accord of 2003, for instance, would take care of nearly all the work.

But the problem isn't just that Netanyahu's coalition partners aren't willing to do either of those things or that his own Likud Party might depose him. It's that Netanyahu himself doesn't want to reach an agreement and that he is the settlementoholic-in-chief. All of which makes it difficult for him to escape the bind in which Obama and Clinton have put him.

Of course, it's possible that Obama will produce "clarifications" that let Netanyahu off the hook. That, though, would be true folly.

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