Analysis: Bibi fights his coalition on settlements

Construction of a housing project in the West Bank settlement of Har Gilo resumed last week

Construction of a housing project in the West Bank settlement of Har Gilo resumed last week

"Bibi really has a big dilemma right now,"a prime ministerial aide said this week. "This is probably the most difficult decision of his premiership."

Delaying tactics have become Binyamin Netanyahu's signature move but, this time, his stalling over whether or not to renew the building freeze in the West Bank settlements seems to be a sign of genuine soul-searching.

The quandary has not been made easier by the mishandling of the process by the Obama administration, which almost certainly now regrets having made the settlement issue so central last year. The question of the settlements was originally to have been a matter for the final stages of the negotiations; now it has been turned into a prerequisite. That is why President Obama is trying to extricate the process from the settlement freeze quagmire by making exorbitant promises to both sides.

For Israel, the sweeteners on offer, according to Washington insiders, include a prolonged Israeli military presence in the strategic Jordan Valley area after an Israeli pullback from the West Bank, more advanced weapons for the IDF and, crucially, increased co-ordination over Iran - all this in return for a freeze extension of just two months.

With such inducements, Mr Netanyahu should seriously consider whether to change his previous decision to not extend the original 10-month moratorium. But here come into play both long-term diplomatic considerations and short-term political ones.

Currently, the PM does not have a majority in his cabinet to extend the freeze. The ministers of Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu and most of the Likud outnumber those of Labour and the small centrist wing within Likud. Mr Netanyahu could probably still convince enough ministers to vote with him, but he would still have a major insurrection on his hands.

As it is, the opponents of the freeze have a compelling argument on their side - Mr Obama's proposals to the Palestinians. Apparently, they were offered an American commitment to a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders in exchange for remaining in the talks despite the renewed building. So far, it seems that the Palestinians are not taking Mr Obama up on his offer, but its very existence, say right-wingers, is proof that you cannot trust assurances from the White House.

Such a commitment from Mr Obama would contradict the 2004 letter from former President George W Bush to Ariel Sharon, saying that in a future peace agreement, Israel would remain in the settlement blocs near the Green Line.

As of press time, Mr Netanyahu had not brought the matter to the cabinet. He still hopes that the Arab League meeting on Friday may give him some kind of an opening or, perhaps, if he holds out, an even better deal will be forthcoming from the Americans. But it doesn't seem like that right now.

So Bibi can agree to a freeze, quite likely lose part of the coalition and be forced to bring Kadima into the government. Or he could refuse and be blamed by the Americans and the international community for scuppering the talks and also by a large part of the Israeli public for squandering valuable strategic opportunities. Continue stalling and it might be the Palestinians who come out with the better deal.

None of the options are appealing.

    Last updated: 5:17pm, October 7 2010