Analysis: An agreement on a settlement freeze is imminent

Visits by four high-ranking American officials to Israel this week seem to have pushed Binyamin Netanyahu’s government to the brink of an agreement on freezing settlement building.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Jim Jones, special envoy George Mitchell and Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross all repeated the requisite statements on America’s commitment to Israel’s security and tried hard to infuse a friendly atmosphere into the talks. They even began to sound tough about imposing time limits on talks with Iran.

It helped that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was away on holiday.

Last week, someone in Mr Netanyahu’s office tried to ramp up the differences by leaking to the press a supposed crisis with Washington over building in east Jerusalem. The hope was that a dispute over such a fundamental issue would force Israel’s allies in America to finally rally round.

But Barack Obama wasn’t pulled in. His senior advisers made it clear that the differences between the sides were nothing new and that they had no plans to push Israel on the matter.

Still, their insistence on the settlement freeze in the West Bank was resolute. Shorn of any significant support against the Administration, Mr Netanyahu had little choice but to agree.

The fine details are still being hammered out but these will probably be the main components.

Israel will announce a freeze on all new building in the West Bank for a limited period while completing the building of 700 structures that are already in progress. In addition, Israel will undertake to comprehensively dismantle illegal hilltop outposts.

The two sides will “agree to disagree” over building in east Jerusalem although Israel will supply quiet assurances that no new building will begin during the “freeze” period.

Israel has also agreed to allow more supplies to go into Gaza. It has made it clear, though, that until Gilad Shalit is released, limitations will remain.

The Americans will pressure Abu Mazen’s government to enter a round of negotiations with Israel. The Arab states which are close to the US will be requested to make some kind of “normalisation” gesture toward Israel.
But even after the agreement is finalised, the mutual antipathy between the two administrations will remain. Mr Netanyahu is still convinced that President Obama’s advisors, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, are trying to topple his government in the hope that a new Kadima coalition will come along instead.

The consensus in the White House remains that Mr Netanyahu is not serious about seeking peace.

“The arrangement with the Americans will probably give us at least a few months of calm,” said one Israeli diplomat. “But the main question should be why was there any need to go through all this tension until we reached a solution. It could have been agreed upon from the beginning.”

Veterans of Israeli-US relations all agree that the biggest problem facing both administrations is the lack of a personal channel between the two leaders. While in the past, cosy phone calls between the Oval Office and Jerusalem were a weekly occurrence, now the President and the Prime Minister rarely speak to each other and are very guarded when they do. Nor is there one trusted individual who can pass on messages between the two capitals.

Without a mechanism for swiftly defusing tensions and with the level of suspicion still high, the next crisis between the two allies cannot be very far off.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010