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(Anthony Jenkins/ The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/ The Globe and Mail)

Michael Bell

Digging the Middle East hole Add to ...

Israeli settlement activists are demonstrating their stranglehold over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's oft-articulated wish to negotiate meaningfully with the Palestinian Authority. Either that or Mr. Netanyahu is using them as a convenient foil to pursue his own objective of precluding a viable Palestinian state.

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The crux of the issue is a 60-day extension of the now-expired 10-month Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank, brought about last year through U.S. pressure as a quid pro quo for Palestinian participation in direct talks.

The Palestinian Authority's insistence on a further moratorium on settlements may seem maximalist, but it's one of the few ways that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas can exert pressure, given the massive power imbalance between the parties. Meantime, internal Palestinian politics keep Mr. Abbas on the knife edge: He's under criticism for encouraging Palestinian security co-operation with Israel, Hamas continues to destabilize his backyard, and he lacks charisma. He has ceded leadership to the Arab League, dominated by Egypt, which will meet Friday to consider whether negotiations should continue.

Despite the moratorium, the Israeli bureaucracy and freebooting settlers have continued to build infrastructure and appropriate land. Settlement activity during the past 10 months (except for the Jerusalem conurbation and wildcat claims) was limited to completion of ongoing construction. But the bureaucracy was not quiescent. Tenders were prepared during the moratorium and are ready to be issued, so new construction can begin post-haste, reflecting the commitment of many to the biblical injunction to build throughout the ancient land of Israel.

For Palestinians, if the moratorium isn't renewed, more of what they view as their homeland will be eaten up while they are increasingly confined to what they consider to be Bantustans and their prospects for a viable territorial base are further eroded.

That's why U.S. President Barack Obama is so desperate to find a mechanism under which the moratorium will continue. And that's why his administration has offered Mr. Netanyahu what is a very sweet deal. Proposed American commitments include agreement to support extended, if interim, stationing of Israeli troops along the Jordan River, inside the boundaries of a sovereign Palestinian state, bypassing proposals for a tough-edged international presence, aimed at mitigating fear among Palestinians that control will remain in the hands of the occupier.

The Americans would also commit to taking the pressure off building after the 60-day extension, raising the settlement issue again only within the framework of final status negotiations. They would undertake to veto any United Nations Security Council resolutions affecting Israel. They would provide Israel with advanced aircraft and early warning systems. They would start talks with Arab states aimed at making common cause against Iranian nuclear ambitions.

In an offer that smacks of desperation, Mr. Obama has to be counting on unprecedented progress over a very short time. UN vetoes and offers of advanced weaponry have the whiff of "same old, same old." But a free hand on settlements and Israeli troops on the Jordan River stretch the envelope, particularly if Israeli commentators who support Mr. Netanyahu's policies are correct that the Prime Minister's tactics are intended to drive negotiations into the ground while maintaining the appearance of flexibility - and thereby presenting Mr. Abbas as the spoiler.

Mr. Netanyahu's reluctance to accept the U.S. offer despite its far-reaching implications demonstrates either confidence that he can pull off rejection or the vehement opposition of many within his government or indeed both. American sources report that Mr. Netanyahu has said privately that settlements trump security. While the Obama administration's reaction to the Prime Minister's perceived niggardliness is one of concern, even anger, its own offer on settlements and Israeli troops on the Jordan River will outrage many because they prejudge the result of negotiations that haven't yet taken place.

Another take suggests that Mr. Obama's rich offering may get the Democratic Party through November's congressional elections, following which the administration can present its own peace plan, including the final status issues of territory, refugees, settlements and Jerusalem. This means that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas will have to think long and hard before committing to, or rejecting, any freeze extension.

Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Jordan, is the Paul Martin Sr. Scholar in International Relations at the University of Windsor.

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