Settlement freeze ends, talks teeter on knife edge

● Bibi holds off pressure to extend settlement freeze ● US President relies on Arab League to push Abbas

By Anshel Pfeffer, September 28, 2010
The freeze melts: settlers at a cornerstone laying ceremony for a daycare centre in Kiryat Netafim, on the West Bank, on Sunday

The freeze melts: settlers at a cornerstone laying ceremony for a daycare centre in Kiryat Netafim, on the West Bank, on Sunday

Israel's version of procrastination is epitomised in the phrase acharei ha-chagim. In other words, "after the High Holy Days", which is when Israelis promise to get things done, start a new diet and generally set their lives in order. This week, acharei ha-chagim also symbolises the next stage of the diplomatic process.

Officially, the 10-month moratorium on building in the West Bank settlements ended at midnight on Sunday. On Monday morning, the bulldozers were already breaking ground for new homes in Judea and Samaria. But despite previous threats and imprecations, the direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority did not immediately come to an end.

Both sides tried to play it cool. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu withstood diplomatic pressure to extend the freeze, while at the same time telling the settlers to lower the profile of their post-freeze celebrations. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also preferred a low-key response, letting it be known that he was still open to finding some kind of compromise.

What compromise? It is still too early to say. As it is, not much will get built since Simchat Torah starts on Wednesday night, there is the weekend and then, on Monday, a special meeting of Arab League foreign ministers to discuss the situation. After the holidays there may be an accepted formula: meanwhile the Americans are sweating it out to come up with just that.

The Obama administration would almost certainly have pushed Mr Netanyahu harder if it were not for the mid-term elections just around the corner. With the timing as it is, they have little choice. Senior White House and State Department officials have been in marathon talks over the past week with Israelis and Palestinians to find a way out of the impasse.

Their preferred outcome would be Mr Netanyahu agreeing to renew the freeze for a short trial period, while direct talks were still ongoing.

The possibility of that happening is small. The Israeli PM will not provoke his right-wing coalition just now and he is fluent enough in internal American politics to know that the administration at present will not force him to do so. On previous form, Mr Netanyahu never gives anything away until he absolutely has to.

The opposite choice, Mr Abbas agreeing to continue talks as if nothing has happened, is also unlikely. He has boxed himself in with repeated declarations against such a course, and also has to take his personal political situation into account.

On the other hand, he is afraid of getting too much of the blame if he abruptly withdraws from the talks. That is why he is falling back on the Arab League, which originally gave him the green light to go ahead with them.

The Americans are currently trying to stitch together some form of compromise whereby Israel limits building to only a few areas of the West Bank and agrees to consider a further freeze if talks proceed well. The Palestinians are trying to secure a public commitment from Mr Netanyahu that a peace deal will be based on the pre-1967 borders, but once again, the chances of him giving even that at this stage are slim.

President Obama's best hope is the support of the two main powers in the Arab League; Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Both countries are eager for the talks to continue as they have much bigger problems right now - facing the Iranian threat to their regional dominance and securing the Mubarak succession in Egypt. The US believes that if it can come up with what looks like a credible compromise, the Arab League will supply Mr Abbas with just the correct amount of pressure and backing to stay at the table.

So how will it all play out? We will know after the chagim. Perhaps.

Last updated: 1:15pm, September 28 2010