Netanyahu in Jerusalem

Was Netanyahu’s settlement freeze a betrayal?

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Many of us were deeply disappointed when our prime minister approved a broader settlement freeze than initially envisaged. It is surely bizarre to impose such harsh restrictions for almost a year on major settlement blocs which even the previous US administration had recognized would always remain within Israel. What makes it even more galling is that the Palestinians refused to make any reciprocal gesture, reinforcing the belief that unilateral concessions embolden rather than moderate the radicals.

But before accusing Binyamin Netanyahu of betrayal, lacking the courage to stand up against American pressure, or challenging his integrity, a dispassionate review of the options he faced is warranted. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible.

In making his decision, Netanyahu was obliged to take into account two cardinal elements. Firstly, we are dependent on the United States for our military and technological superiority, without which we would face an abyss. In addition, in the absence of US global support and employment of its veto at the UN, the Europeans would have a free hand to unilaterally approve a Palestinian state which could soon be appropriated by Hamas. Our adversaries could also impose crippling boycotts and other punitive measures against us.

Secondly, the US is one of the very few remaining countries in which public opinion remains overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Any US administration inclined to adopt policies which would visibly undermine Israel’s security would trigger a major backlash from the public.

Yet, despite Netanyahu’s repeated denials to the contrary, the “liberal” Obama government is markedly less friendly than recent Democratic and Republican administrations.

That is not to suggest that President Barack Obama hates Israel, as some of his more extreme US critics allege. But he certainly displays a lack of chemistry with Israel. There is also no denying that many of his former intimate political associates and friends were hostile toward Israel. In addition, he has surrounded himself with advisers, some Jewish, whose track records on Israel are disconcerting.

In fact, the Obama administration has been insensitive to some of our most profound concerns and has certainly displayed a penchant to deal much more harshly with Israel than with the Palestinians. Even if motivated by good intentions, this policy has proven to be an abject failure and simply intensified Palestinian intransigence, encouraging them to believe that the US will bring Israel to its knees without requiring any reciprocity on their part. Presumably to impress the Arabs, the administration has also made a point of publicly distancing itself from Israel, even behaving inappropriately toward our prime minister. It is thus no coincidence that Obama’s personal standing here is appallingly low. We simply don’t have faith in him.

HOWEVER THESE factors and our reliance on the US do not oblige us to behave like a banana republic and accede to every diktat of this administration. We must simply ensure that if we are obliged to resist a particular US demand, it should be over an issue on which Congress and the American people would be inclined to support us.

Alas, the settlement issue has become so convoluted and distorted in the minds of the public that even many American Jews are confused and unable to distinguish between outposts, isolated settlements and the major settlement blocs.

In this environment, in addition to weighing the awesome consequences of a major breakdown with the Americans, Netanyahu was also obliged to take into account the Iranian nuclear threat and the negative fallout from the Goldstone Report.

To his credit, despite walking a diplomatic tightrope, Netanyahu’s performance as a statesman has been impeccable – resisting the initially brutal and draconian demands from the US administration while recognizing the danger of being dragged into a confrontation over the settlements which, rightly or wrongly, have become our Achilles’ heel among the American public.

In the final arrangement he negotiated, any suggestion that Jerusalem would come under the rubric of settlements was firmly rejected. Housing under current construction would proceed and public requirements such as hospitals, schools, synagogues, etc. would be maintained.

Netanyahu’s action should not be viewed in isolation. It is only the first in a highly complex series of negotiations. The ball is now in the Palestinian court. Should they come to their senses and renew negotiations, in their present frame of mind they will undoubtedly be making demands which we will be obliged to reject. These will include the Arab right of return, the status of Jerusalem and possibly a role for Hamas.

A deadlock will also ensue should the Palestinians reject the stipulation in Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan address that Israel retain defensible borders or refuse to undertake that a Palestinian state be demilitarized.

In the immediate short term we must also demand that real action be taken toward dismantling the terrorist entities and ending anti-Semitic incitement. Should the Obama administration try to pressure us to compromise on these issues, we will be obliged to resist and, as a last resort, appeal for support from Congress and the American people. But we would be in a much stronger position to generate public support on such issues than on the settlements.

It was to be expected that the settlers, concerned about their homes and livelihoods, and others would be deeply distressed and would fiercely criticize Netanyahu. However they must resist indulging in character assassination and defamation of the prime minister or fanning hysteria among those who do not comprehend the highly complex issues at stake.

DESPITE UNDERSTANDABLE bitterness and frustration, opponents of the freeze should take into account that Netanyahu’s action is not unprecedented. Menachem Begin also introduced a three-month freeze on settlement construction when he initiated negotiations with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. They should also ask themselves why men of principle from the national camp like Moshe Ya’alon and Bennie Begin have endorsed Netanyahu. And opponents of the freeze should be wary and remember how their predecessors undermined a previous politically moderate government, which led to disastrous consequences for the entire nation.

It has frequently been stated that Israel will only be able to make peace under a right-wing government. The fact that despite this painful decision, Netanyahu enjoys the support of the vast majority of the population is an affirmation of this adage.

But there are difficult days ahead. The prospects for a Palestinian state which would genuinely make peace with us are more remote than ever. If the Palestinians once again shoot themselves in the foot and refuse to negotiate, the suspension of the freeze should be reviewed and the Obama administration will hopefully cease pressuring us for more unilateral concessions.

On the other hand, if negotiations are resumed and the Obama administration backs Palestinian demands which undermine our long-term security, our resolve and ability to stand firm will be put to the test. Ideally, such a situation would warrant a unity government. However if our dysfunctional political system inhibits this, we the people should seek to empower our government by enabling it to demonstrate that it enjoys the support of the bulk of the nation.

ileibler@netvision.net.il

This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and in an abbreviated form in Hebrew at Yisrael Hayom and Walla

 

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