Monday, September 13, 2010

"Mr. President, You Screwed up" - unsettled over the settlement issue

(Op-ed by Nachum Barnea -Ynet).You screwed up, Netanyahu can say to Barack Obama following the president’s call over the weekend to extend the settlement construction freeze. The construction was frozen for a limited period of time – 10 months. The American Administration chose to accept this timeframe. It cannot show regret as this period draws to an end and ask for more. It’s not serious or credible.

Instead of advancing the negotiations, Obama prompts both Abbas and Netanyahu to make pledges they would find difficult to retract. Abbas cannot be less zealous about Palestine than the US president. Netanyahu cannot portray himself as one who caved in to American pressure.

Construction in Judea and Samaria will not kill Obama and its cessation will not save him. He has other troubles. Yet it presents Netanyahu with a complex challenge. This is not a fundamental matter, as the number of apartments that will be built or not built will change nothing fundamental on the ground. There is no ideological issue here either, with the government endorsing the two-state solution.

We are dealing with a classical dilemma here, illustrated by a well-known Israeli story about Morduch the fisherman and his flashlight. “Throw the flashlight into the water,” his friends urge him. “Let’s see if you’ve got character.” Morduch debates, and eventually hurls the flashlight into the water. “You’ve got no character,” his friends say. “Anybody can influence you.”

Should Netanyahu continue the freeze, he will be accused of having no character – he caved in to America pressure. Yet should Netanyahu resume the construction, he will also be accused of having no character – he instigated a damaging confrontation with the US Administration just to prove that he has character, thereby putting an end to the talks he so much wanted.

And he’s doing it with the least convenient issue for Israel. On any other issue – demilitarization, right of return, territorial tradeoffs, Jerusalem – America and Europe show a willingness to listen to Israel’s positions. Yet the resumption of construction is the kind of merchandize that virtually nobody wants to buy out there. At best, it is interpreted as capitulation to a radical Israeli minority. At worst, it is interpreted as a colonialist conspiracy. What’s the logic of new construction, everyone will ask, when you’re negotiating an evacuation?

The resumption of construction is a huge reward for Abbas – it’s his getaway path. He doesn’t deserve this prize.