Benjamin Netanyahu might feel the ground around his feet getting a little colder these days. Palestinians are demanding that a ten month freeze on settlement construction (due to expire on September 26) be extended and will halt peace negotiations without it. Netanyahu’s right wing will bolt his coalition if that happens, leaving him with no option but to call new elections.
With the second round of peace talks about to begin in Egypt next week, the pressures from both sides – as well as the U.S. Administration, which is staking its reputation on the talks’ outcome – is high. No one ever said that negotiations on this level would be easy as it has been clear for months that a extension of the freeze is the sine qua non for any advancement in peace talks.
The wonder of it all this is how much clout the Palestinians have been able to muster as legitimate interlocutors. Without having to do very much at all, other than issue a few tepid videos expressing regrets to Israelis for not having advanced the peace process forward, Palestinian leaders have demonstrated little to no resolve for moving the ball forward.
This makes perfect sense. They have little at all to gain from it. The prospect of Palestinian statehood would not give Palestinian leaders much they don’t already have but might add substantially to their headaches of how to incorporate Hamas’ growing support base within a government.
Needless to say, the respect they have been able to garner, is way out of proportion to the level of respect they deserve.
The more important question remains – what does Israel have to gain or lose by acceding to such a demand? The previous ten month freeze, which allowed for the completion of projects already under construction, was a hard won compromise for the Netanyahu government. It will be tough to ask it to go through that kind of horse trading again, particularly for so little return.
As for the Obama Administration, it is well aware that Netanyahu is the only player in the Israeli spectrum of leadership capable of delivering concessions. By allowing the Palestinians to exercise a veto on new settlement construction, they are effectively cutting him off at the knees.
Given these realities, the Obama Administration would be far wiser to apply pressure where it might have some effect. Obama should impress on the Palestinian president that without concessions of his own, American support cannot be guaranteed and any international credibility achieved in the past several months will once again evaporate.
Whatever they feel about the prospect of statehood, the one thing the Palestinians have no interest in doing is losing American support. Such support is necessary in sustaining the the level of aid received from around the world and maintaining the diplomatic pipelines to broader international constituencies.
No freeze, in construction in either the West Bank or East Jerusalem, will necessarily guarantee progress in the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. But a threatened freeze in relations between the United States and the Palestinian Authority might be enough to stimulate a potential thaw.
Coddled for too long, the Palestinian Authority must begin to learn what its like to play ball in the grown up world of diplomatic relations. It might just inspire the warming necessary to prevent yet another episode of cold feet.