Israel's prime minister has imposed a 10-month building freeze in the West Bank. Israeli soldiers dismantled an illegal outpost, above, last month.
Long a foe of Palestinian statehood, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now says he backs the two-state idea
December 16, 2009
Weighing Netanyahu as Peace Maker
By ETHAN BRONNER
JERUSALEM — A month ago, Aluf Benn, a senior columnist at the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote an article that shocked many. He said he believed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, was seriously interested in making concessions to the Palestinians and coming to an agreement on a two-state solution.
“Nothing I have ever written has caused as much controversy,” Mr. Benn said in a telephone interview. “Colleagues, politicians and friends all said, ‘How can you believe him?’ ”
After a long career supporting Israeli settlements in occupied land and rejecting Palestinian statehood, Mr. Netanyahu said last June that he accepted the two-state idea. Three weeks ago, he imposed a 10-month freeze on building Jewish housing in the West Bank, something no Israeli leader had done before. Settlers are outraged, and Mr. Netanyahu is facing a rebellion in his party. Together with his removal of many West Bank checkpoints and barriers to Palestinian movement and economic growth, these steps went well beyond what many ever expected of him.
Yet skepticism would be a polite way of describing the reaction of the Palestinians and much of the world, who view his steps as either too little too late or a ruse aimed at buying time to pursue his real agenda.
“Rather than make peace its No. 1 priority, Israel continues to prioritize settlements and the relentless colonization of occupied Palestinian land, rendering the two-state solution politically and economically unviable,” Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said this week.
Still, Mr. Benn is not alone in his interpretation. There is a school of thought, both here and in Washington, that says Mr. Netanyahu is going through the same shift experienced by previous hawks who became more conciliatory as prime ministers — Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
“As we say in Hebrew, things look different from there than they do from here,” observed Isaac Herzog, Israel’s welfare minister, who comes from the Labor party, referring to a saying that seeks to describe how responsibility blunts ideology. “My keen impression is that he is serious, perhaps more than people realize. He is saying, ‘Test me,’ and I am afraid the world may be missing a golden opportunity.”
Shimon Peres, Israel’s president and a longtime two-state advocate, said he sought to serve as Mr. Netanyahu’s sounding board and occasional guide. He said he believed that Mr. Netanyahu wanted to cut a deal with the Palestinians but was worried about his political base.
“Calling for a two-state solution was an ideological breakthrough,” Mr. Peres said of Mr. Netanyahu. “He wants to be the man that makes the peace. He is not sure about the cost of it. He wouldn’t like to find himself in a situation where he makes peace and discovers in the morning that he doesn’t have a majority for it. That’s his dilemma.”
The cost is already becoming manifest. Likud colleagues, including Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, are calling for the settlement moratorium to be canceled if Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, does not return to talks that ended nearly a year ago when Israel invaded Gaza. The point of the 10-month building lull, they say, was to offer a gesture that would bring the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiations.
But the Palestinians have concluded that they can get further by appealing to international bodies than by returning to talks with this Israeli government. Mr. Abbas repeated his rejection of talks without a full settlement freeze at a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council on Tuesday. Palestinian politics are also deeply divided not only between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank but also within each group.
A senior Israeli official acknowledged that the building stoppage was also aimed at the Obama administration, which had demanded a settlement freeze last spring.
“The credibility of the United States president is important to Israel, so we had to respond in a positive way,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It was actually decided in the summer, but we waited while the Americans tried to get some response from the Palestinians and Arab states. When that failed, we decided to go ahead anyway.”
The freeze was less than what was demanded by the Americans and the Palestinians. It permits nearly 3,000 units to be completed, includes some 28 public buildings and leaves East Jerusalem out. Still, senior American officials say it will greatly reduce the construction as the months roll on — as many as 15,000 units by some estimates, including one by Mr. Peres. In addition, the American officials say, if the Palestinians return to negotiations, the freeze is likely to be extended.
For Israel’s political right, which considers settling in all of the historical land of Israel to be the core mission of Zionism, such a stoppage is clearly painful.
But aides and analysts say the prime minister’s highest priorities are keeping warm relations with Washington and checking Iran’s nuclear development and regional ambition. The United States believes that it will be easier to stop Iran if Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank. Mr. Netanyahu rejects that linkage, saying once Iran is stopped it will be easier to make peace with the Palestinians, since Iran supports anti-peace elements, like Hamas.
But as Israel faces diplomatic isolation over its war in Gaza a year ago, it has decided to yield to the American argument, at least in part.
Dov Weissglas, a top aide to Mr. Sharon when he was prime minister, recently wrote of the need to take this route in an article in Yediot Aharonot. He said that the settlement moratorium was not enough but that it was a sign of promise to be encouraged.
“No one in the world agrees to Israel’s presence in a majority of the Judea and Samaria territories and the continued construction there,” he wrote. “Israeli persistence will bring upon it diplomatic isolation, and this is something that Israel cannot afford. The freeze plan is an attempt to avoid this. It is not important in and of itself, but as a first sign of a process of understanding and sobriety, it is highly meaningful.”