Analysis: Call this slow-drip diplomacy

Binyamin Netanyahu has an ideal schedule in mind. Reach an agreement on a prisoner deal with Hamas and carry it out in three weeks’ time. And then, with Gilad Shalit safely at home for Rosh Hashanah, travel to New York and together with Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations General Assembly, announce the beginning of negotiations with the Palestinians and a temporary freeze on settlement activity.

The icing on the cake would be an agreement between the permanent UN members on a severe round of sanctions against Iran.

Most of the details have already been agreed with the Americans, but if anyone was expecting a grand announcement to come out of Wednesday’s meeting between Mr Netanyahu and President Obama’s special representative, George Mitchell, in London, they do not understand the new Bibi method of diplomacy.

In the same way that it took three months of tense talks and one marathon meeting in the White House for Mr Netanyahu to come out with a grudging commitment to a two-state solution in his Bar Ilan University speech, he is now slowly drawing out the next step.

This week, his office spun stories of “pessimism” and “difficulties” in the talks with the Americans, because he has no intention of taking the plunge before the General Assembly.

While the end result is no longer in doubt, Mr Netanyahu’s show of hesitation is first of all designed to make sure that his troublesome coalition will not break out into open rebellion.

He has been allowing the more right-wing ministers, like Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Yaalon and Benny Begin, to let off steam and is now gently reining them in. He knows that when the actual freeze is announced and police start dismantling the settlement outposts, probably just after Succot, he will have a minor insurrection on his hands, but for now he is doing everything to minimise it.

The second reason for Mr Netanyahu’s gradualism is his intention to exact the utmost price for every concession he makes. He sees the slow hardening of the American stance towards Iran as a direct result of his own insistence on bringing up the issue in every discussion with Western officials. While officially maintaining that there is no connection between the issue of the settlements and the Iranian nuclear programme, he makes sure that discussion of the former is followed by the latter.

Though there is no direct connection, the apparent breakthrough in the talks over Gilad Shalit is also part of this. The new involvement of German intelligence officials in the negotiations in Cairo is a sign of the effort major European governments are willing to make to help Mr Netanyahu out — just as long as plays ball on the settlements.

If he brings Gilad home, there will also be a significant boost in public opinion before announcing more concessions to the Palestinians.

Mr Brown, who desperately wants a seat in any peace conference, has a major reason to envy Angela Merkel. Britain has no diplomat or spy chief that is trusted equally by Israel and Hamas. Lucky for him that Mr Mitchell likes having his meetings with Israelis in London.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010