Analysis: Netanyahu will concede even more
Settlement building that has already begun, such as this apartment block in Ma’aleh Adumim, will continue
No Israeli prime minister has ever announced an entire freeze of house building in the West Bank. Binyamin Netanyahu did it last Wednesday and despite the right-wing makeup of the Knesset and his own cabinet, he seems to have managed to get away with it. For now.
Mr Netanyahu bought himself a short respite from American pressure but it will not last for long. The PA, as was to be expected, has criticised the move as insufficient: it does not include east Jerusalem, it allows building to go on where foundations have already been laid, and building of public structures and schools will continue too.
For now, President Mahmoud Abbas has no intention of renewing negotiations with Israel. His political position among the Palestinians is too precarious and any sign of capitulation towards Israel may be the final straw. The Americans are still determined to prop him up and renewed pressure on Mr Netanyahu for more concessions is simply a matter of time.
But can Mr Netanyahu afford to make any more concessions? So far, aside from a handful of Likud backbenchers and a couple of junior ministers, there has been little opposition to his settlement freeze within his own party. Certainly, nothing resembling the insurrection which he himself led against Ariel Sharon four years ago during the Gaza withdrawal.
The main right-wing party within his coalition, Yisrael Beiteinu, has also remained silent. Shas opposed the freeze but muted its criticism and the party’s two cabinet members simply did not show up for the vote.
The settlers of course attacked the announcement. Many local council heads in Judea and Samaria refused to accept the formal orders forbidding them to continue building. But they have little political leverage for now.
The challenge for Mr Netanyahu will now be to find further measures that will keep the Americans, if not the PA, happy while not jeopardising the harmony within Likud and the coalition. He will most likely have to give the Palestinian security forces more control over wider areas and release hundreds of Fatah prisoners as a gesture to President Abbas, who needs to show his constituency that Hamas is not the only one capable of bringing prisoners home.
This will cause some ire on Mr Netanyahu’s right flank but not anything he cannot deal with. Any suggestion, though, that he is prepared to extend the freeze order will force at least some of the ministers who supported him last week to switch sides and also cause extreme unrest amongst some coalition partners.
Mr Netanyahu’s goal over the next few months will be to tread a careful path between these two conflicting lobbies. If he succeeds, the next big challenge is 10 months down the road, when the freeze period will end. Some of Mr Netanyahu’s ministers said following last week’s vote that they were in favour only because the freeze was limited in time. They will almost certainly oppose an extension, as will much of the parliamentary party.
But a decision to resume building will put Mr Netanyahu on the biggest collision course with the Americans in what has already proved to be a tempestuous relationship.