Analysis: Settlement deal is a hard sell

One of the less known items on Binyamin Netanyahu’s CV is his stint as the sales manager of an Israeli furniture manufacturer, before he joined the diplomatic service. The PM will need all his sales acumen now to market two totally different products to the American administration and the Israeli right wing in the run-up to the highly anticipated “peace summit” at the UN next week.

Although Mr Netanyahu is meeting American emissary George Mitchell today for the third time in a week, the basic details of the deal have been clear for two weeks. Neither side is happy with it, but it is all they have.

Israel will continue building 2,500 homes already started in the West Bank and 450 new ones authorised last week, enough to keep the cement mixers turning for another year or so. After that there will be a temporary halt, but how long is temporary? Anybody’s guess is good.

No one, of course, is being fooled. The Americans are not getting the settlement freeze they asked for and the settlers are going to have to swallow restrictions on their building. Mr Netanyahu might have promised on Sunday that “the building in Judea and Samaria will continue”, but the truth is that he has given in to at least part of Mr Obama’s demands.

So can he sell this package to either side?

The right wing is observing a ceasefire, for now. They won’t act against the prime minister as long as homes are still being built.

Mr Netanyahu succeeded last week in reining in the opposition within the Likud. Twisting some arms, he prevented ministers from attending an event organised at Likud headquarters against concessions to the Americans. The settler leadership has also adopted a “wait and see” tactic.

Mr Obama is more of a hard sell. Here Mr Netanyahu is relying on two factors. The first is the fact that the Palestinians and other Arab leaders have not delivered any significant concessions either, which will make it difficult to apply additional pressure on Israel.

The other hope is that Barack Obama’s need to deliver some kind of achievement on the international front at the UN General Assembly next week will force the administration to pretend that Mr Netanyahu has actually agreed to a freeze.

The PM’s schedule for next week has yet to be finalised. It is not even clear when he plans to leave for New York, let alone whether a joint meeting with Mr Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will take place.

Right now it seems that neither Mr Netanyahu nor Mr Abbas are very anxious to meet each other: both have to worry about the reception they will receive upon returning home.

The three-way summit is an American interest. Mr Netanyahu is gambling that this is what will make Mr Obama himself become a salesman for his concessions.

    Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010