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August 27, 2009: Where Are We?

September 24, 2009

That is, with regard to the settlements and a deal with the US on freezing building; and with regard to “peace negotiations.”

If I could say with certainty, I would be a multi-millionaire — for I’d know something no one else knows. Everyone is playing his cards very close to the chest. There is spin, and the rumors are flying fast.

As to rumors, or unconfirmed reports that cite anonymous leaks as their source, I will simply say that while they may provide a remez — a hint — of what’s coming, and thus signal a need to watch a situation, they do not merit alarm. We’ll all make ourselves crazy if we overreact to every rumor.

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There is one rumor that made it into the Guardian in London, and was then picked up by other places, that I do want to discuss in some detail:

It was reported in the last couple of days (with US, European, Israeli and Palestinian sources reportedly cited) that Israel would agree to a “partial and temporary settlement freeze” and in return the U.S., Britain and France would push the UN Security Council to expand sanctions on Iran to include its oil and gas industry.

This reportedly would break the stalemate between Israel and the PA with regard to negotiations, which would then be able to begin.

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These are the elements to consider:

[] Is this something that Netanyahu might do because he is genuinely concerned with the danger of Iran and is thus willing to make concessions in other areas that will help stop Iran? He has long hinted at this.

Or do we see this as spin, with Netanyahu the original source of this leak, which he is using as cover? THE big worry here, THE big fear, is that Netanyahu will cave to US pressure on the settlements, as he has demonstrated weakness in the crunch before. Saying he is doing it because it helps prevent an existential threat against us makes it seem more palatable.

MK Aryeh Eldad certainly sees this as spin:

“Netanyahu is hiding behind these rumors in order to avoid the troubling questions that are directed at him today: why is he freezing the settlements. It is unbelievable how the Palestinians are humiliating the government of Israel, we give them gestures in exchange for their willingness to sit down with us.”

And indeed Eldad is right on this. The Palestinians are supposed to want a state (they don’t). They should run to the negotiating table, and yet they are holding out for a complete freeze — even though they didn’t demand this from Ehud Olmert. Obama has given them the option of squeezing us harder, and they’re taking advantage of it.

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[] The next question is precisely what is meant by a “partial freeze.” (And, as Abbas has demanded a full freeze, would this bring him to the table at any rate?)

Netanyahu laid out two red lines, as he made his way to Europe this week for talks with Mitchell and Brown in London and then with the Germans.

He said that eastern Jerusalem is part of the eternal capital of Israel and thus no freeze applies. (Never mind that the de facto freeze on issuing building tenders in eastern Jerusalem that has been in place for the last four months weakens this claim.)

According to Haaretz, Obama has now conceded on this. But actually this is not quite the case:

“According to both Israeli officials and Western diplomats, U.S. envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell has recognized the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannot announce a settlement freeze in [eastern] Jerusalem. The officials said the U.S. will not endorse new construction there, but would not demand Jerusalem publicly announce a freeze.”

The way I read this, it means the US would allow Netanyahu to save face with the right wing here, while likely demanding a privately agreed upon freeze. The duplicity of it. Totally unacceptable. For this is not about allowing Netanyahu to save face, but rather about saving Jerusalem. Netanyahu should say nothing doing unless it’s clear and upfront that there will be no Jerusalem freeze. And he should then give the order for tenders to go out.

Then, Netanyahu has said that “normal life” in the settlements cannot be interrupted. “Normal life” is the new term of preference, instead of “natural growth.” It allows for expansion within a settlement, without taking more land, to build structures necessary for continuing life in the settlement.

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[] Another serious question to be asked is whether Obama would be serious in promising to push for more stringent sanctions against Iran. That is, would he really push, with all the leverage at his disposal, or would he make a tepid effort and claim he tried. Sanctions on gas and oil (refined is the issue) would be enormously damaging to Iran. But saying the US, Britain and France will “push the Security Council” is no guarantee of anything, and what we’ve seen to date, which has been pathetic, is a willingness of certain nations to trade with Iran in spite of everything. Is this going to stop? Iran could have been brought to its knees a long time ago.

How does Obama feel about this? No more than a semi-educated guess: Not long ago I would have expected him to be opposed, as he was in full appeasement mode, eager to tread softly, and not upset Iran, which, it was hoped, would negotiate with the US. But Iran has been anything but forthcoming on this score, and American backs are starting to go up. Is Obama ready to get tougher?

One thing we know he doesn’t want is Israel attacking Iran. The Israelis are saying time is running out. Would Obama endorse sanctions to stall Israel?

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The point here, of course, is if Obama sees that Iran is not forthcoming and that it’s time for sanctions, he would be doing this for the sake of US interests and presumably would do it whether Netanyahu froze settlement building or not.

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Are we confused yet?

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From Germany late in the day today, Netanyahu insisted that rumors regarding a deal struck between Israel and the US are not true.

However, the Haaretz article cited above does not say this. What is says is that Netanyahu made a proposal to Mitchell in London yesterday, and that the US will not respond until next week, when Israeli officials will meet Mitchell in Washington. So, no deal has been struck, but maybe it’s true that Netanyahu has laid out what would be acceptable to him:

Reportedly, his offer is for a freeze in Judea and Samaria for nine months that does not include construction on 2,500 units currently going on (as the result of tenders issued more than four months ago), and some special cases for “normal life,” such as the need for a new school.

[] The other big issue for Netanyahu is a clear exit plan: “the freeze is a confidence-building measure that must be matched by reciprocal steps from the PA and Arab states. If these fail to materialize, Israel wants an American guarantee that it will not oppose renewed building.”

This is a huge issue, because once something like a “temporary” freeze is put in place, it very quickly becomes permanent. What irritates me is that it is suggested that we need an American guarantee. I don’t think we should freeze building at all, but within this context, how about if we told the Americans: This is what we will give. Maximum. If there is not reciprocity to our satisfaction within nine months, WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO PROTECT OUR INTERESTS AND START BUILDING AGAIN.

Of course at the end of nine months, Obama will push for more. The initiative would have to be ours.

Last question here: precisely who determines if there has been SUFFICIENT reciprocity? There’s an enormous amount of wiggle-room here.

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On a related issue: Netanyahu has been babbling about having optimism that we can start negotiating with the PA in late September.

This is pure, unadulterated appeasement. For I fail to see a single reason why this would be a source of genuine optimism for Israel. After the hardened line that came out of the Fatah Conference in Bethlehem, at which they embraced the right to violent resistance, whatever name they gave it?

Where is Netanyahu on this? Why isn’t he screaming bloody murder and making demands? We have to freeze settlements, but they can embrace terrorism, and this is good news? Heaven help us!

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At any rate, Abbas, undoubtedly at Obama’s urging, has now said he will meet with Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN. It’s not negotiations, you understand? Just talk. And Netanyahu say, Gee, this is fantastic, now we can move along.

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Rest assured, there is a great deal more to say…

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