The US has once again floated the idea of a settlement freeze in the Israeli-Palestianian talks, Israeli army radio reported earlier today. Five years ago, Barack Obama publicly demanded a complete end to settlement expansion as a condition of talks, infuriating Israel and then the Palestanians when Hillary Clinton retreated just a few months later. The demand from the US escalated expectations about the conditions of talks, which predictably resulted in their complete collapse at the time.
This time, John Kerry has something else in mind. Instead of making a complete freeze a prerequisite for talks at all, the US will propose a partial freeze in smaller settlements as a carrot for Mahmoud Abbas to commit to talks:
Aides to US Secretary of State John Kerry will request that the Israeli government freeze all construction in settlements outside of the large blocs of communities that Israel intends to keep in any final-status deal with the Palestinians, Army Radio reported.
Kerry’s aides say the request will be an integral part of the framework agreement that will allow for the negotiations to continue past the originally allotted nine months, according to Army Radio.
Officials in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office have yet to officially respond to the request, Army Radio reported. While there has been no official response from Jerusalem, government officials have resigned themselves to the fact that Israeli gestures are necessary in order to entice Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table.
Israel has insisted that it wants to keep the blocs of major settlements in any deal, both for political reasons and for strategic reasons. Strategically, the blocs in question occupy the high ground around Jerusalem, which Israel believes it needs to secure the state from another invasion through the West Bank. Politically, no Israeli government could sell the dismantlement and relocation of the tens of thousands of Israelis who have established themselves in these blocs, especially not after the retreat from Gaza and the mess it left behind.
However, the smaller settlements are both a political and strategic problem for Israel. There is no good way for Israel to defend them in the aftermath of a peace settlement based on a two-state solution. The security needed for these settlements exacerbate the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, especially along the security zone. Israel cannot afford to maintain these smaller settlements in the event of a peace treaty, or worse, an outright declaration of independence by the Palestinian Authority — which it is threatening, and which the UN is almost certain to embrace in the General Assembly, even among Western nations. The experience of the debate over the PA’s acceptance as a non-member observer nation in the GA showed just how little leverage Israel still has in this negotiation.
So far, Netanyahu’s office is staying quiet about this leak, and its airing by army radio may well be a test balloon to see whether it will fly with Israelis. Netanyahu could implement an “unofficial” settlement freeze by tying up expansion efforts in reams of red tape, but he’d need the Knesset to put an official stop to any construction efforts. If Abbas doesn’t give some sort of public acceptance of this term, grudging better than enthusiastic in this case, don’t expect Netanyahu to stay silent for long. If this fails, though, Kerry will be left with considerable egg on his face.