With Netanyahu Bribe, Washington Going for Broke

Watching the peace process
between Israel and the Palestinians drag on year after year without
conclusion, it is easy to overlook the enormous changes that have taken
place on the ground since the Oslo accords were signed 17 years ago.

Each has undermined the Palestinians' primary goal of achieving viable
statehood, whether it is the near-trebling of Jewish settlers in the
occupied West Bank to the current numbers of half a million, Israel's
increasing stranglehold on East Jerusalem, the wall that has effectively
annexed large slices of the West Bank to Israel, or the splitting of
the Palestinian national movement into rival camps following Israel's
withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

Another setback of similar magnitude may be unfolding as Barack Obama
dangles a lavish package of incentives in the face of Benjamin Netanyahu
in an attempt to lure the Israeli prime minister into renewing a
three-month, partial freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the
West Bank.

The generosity of the US president's package, which includes twenty
combat aircraft worth $3 billion and backing for Israel's continued
military presence in the Jordan Valley after the declaration of a
Palestinian state, has prompted even Thomas Friedman of The New York Times to compare it to a "bribe."

Israeli officials said yesterday they were still waiting to see a text
of the deal worked out between Netanyahu and the US secretary of state,
Hillary Clinton, in seven hours of negotiations.

In addition to the concession in the Jordan Valley and the offer of
combat jets that would effectively double the annual aid from the US,
the deal is said to include a promise by Washington to veto for the next
year any UN resolutions Israel opposes and to refrain, after borders
have been agreed, from demanding any future limits on settlement growth.

The signs are that Netanyahu will be able to secure the backing of his
right-wing cabinet for a brief settlement freeze that this time, the US
has indicated, will not include East Jerusalem.

So far, in attempting to resolve the conflict, Obama has nearly
exhausted his political capital. There were intimations this week that
the White House could not afford further humiliation and was going for

The timetable for negotiations now calls for reaching an agreement on
borders within three months -- the duration of the settlement
construction freeze -- followed by a final resolution of the conflict
within a year or so.

Washington's hopeful logic is that a renewal of the freeze will be
unnecessary in three months because an agreement on borders will already
have established whether a settlement is to be considered included in
Israel's territory and therefore permitted to expand or inside Palestine
and therefore slated for destruction.

In a similarly optimistic vein, the US apparently expects the problem of
refugees simply to dissolve through the creation of a special
international fund to compensate them. The right of return appears to be
off the table.

If these obstacles can be surmounted this way -- a very big "if" -- only
one significant point of contention, the future of East Jerusalem,
remains to be resolved.

This is where things get more awkward. The US is not proposing that the
three-month freeze apply to East Jerusalem, after settlement-building
there caused friction between Israel and the US during the last

This concession and the outlines of a previous US peace proposal under
president Bill Clinton hint at Washington's most likely strategy. East
Jerusalem will be divided, with the large settlement blocs, home to at
least 200,000 Jews, handed over to Israel while the Old City and its
holy places fall under a complicated shared sovereignty.

In the face of this intense US-Israeli diplomacy, Palestinians are
dismayed. They have described the agreement between the US and Netanyahu
as "deeply disappointing" and are demanding from the White House
similarly generous inducements to ease their path back to negotiations.
The Arab League, which has taken a prominent role in overseeing the
Palestinian negotiations, has also objected to the deal.

The Palestinians fear they will be left with a patchwork of disconnected
areas -- what Israel has previously termed "bubbles" -- as their

If the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, can be made to
swallow all this, which seems highly improbable, he will then have to
contend with Hamas, the rival Palestinian faction, which can be expected
to do everything in its power to disrupt such an agreement.

And then there is Netanyahu. Few Israeli analysts think he has suddenly become more amenable to the US plans.

Neve Gordon, a politics professor at Ben Gurion University in the Negev
and author of an important study of the occupation, believes the Israeli
prime minister is simply playing the part demanded by Obama.

"He is taking the US 'merchandise' on offer, but will hold firm on key
issues that guarantee the talks' failure. That way he gets the credit
for keeping the negotiations on track and lets the Palestinians take the
blame for walking out."

This sounds suspiciously like a rerun of the last proper peace talks, at
Camp David in 2000. Then, Israeli intransigence stalled the
negotiations, but Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, was blamed by
the US and Israel for their collapse.

The Camp David failure led to the outbreak of Palestinian violence, the
second intifada, and the demise of the Israeli peace camp. Netanyahu may
be prepared to risk a repeat of both such outcomes from these talks if
it means he can avoid making any real concessions on Palestinian

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