Analysis: Bibi played his card well

One of the favourite labels Binyamin Netanyahu’s political rivals have tried to stick on him is that he is a “panickist”.

In the past, his hasty ill-advised style of decision-making has given them ample ammunition. But the timing of his announcement on a settlement freeze this week can hardly be faulted. He held on to his trump card despite intense international prodding, finally using it at the most opportune moment.

For eight months, almost from the day he took office, he has been under pressure, not least from the man representing Israel’s main strategic ally, to commit to freezing all building across the Green Line.

Mr Netanyahu believes that Israel should retain control of most of the West Bank but he is also a pragmatist and is keenly aware of the direction in which international winds are blowing. His Bar Ilan University speech in June, in which he accepted, through clenched teeth, the principle of a two-state solution, gave a clear indication of the direction in which he was going.

But still he held out, refusing to issue the statement that he could only make once. He went through three increasingly uncomfortable meetings with President Barack Obama, was publicly humiliated before the last one three weeks ago, and still he bided his time. He made the Americans various promises in private but in public would not allow himself to be tied down.

The American administration will do almost anything to keep the lame-duck Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from going under. They are worried that the almost inevitable deal over the release of Gilad Shalit and hundreds of Palestinian prisoners will give Hamas the necessary boost to finally topple Mr Abbas.

This was Mr Netanyahu’s moment to seemingly give in to the Palestinian and American demand.

Not only will this gesture make it much harder for the Palestinian leaders to blame him for undermining Mr Abbas, it will buy him some much needed respite from American pressure at a time when he needs it most.

No less significant, Mr Netanyahu forced the vote on his cabinet at a critical juncture, when his ministers have to rally around. That is how he overcame the objections of his hardline Likud colleagues.

    Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010