Analysis: Bibi sets course for historic deal

Can they do business? Netanyahu shakes hands with  Abbas as Clinton looks on in Washington this September

Can they do business? Netanyahu shakes hands with Abbas as Clinton looks on in Washington this September

Kicking, struggling and protesting, Benjamin Netanyahu has been dragged across the Rubicon. He may still try to swim back.

There remain many snags along the way before direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are resumed - and certainly before anything of substance is achieved in those talks - but details emerging this week regarding the agreement reached last week between Mr Netanyahu and State Secretary Hillary Clinton signify a major milestone.

In almost eight hours of marathon talks in New York last Thursday, a deal was hammered out whereby Israel would agree to a second settlement building freeze, 90 days long. In this time, direct talks would be resumed in which the main item on the agenda would be the borders of the future Palestinian state.

In return, Israel is to receive new American commitments to its security, a $3 billion military package including 20 F-35 fighter jets, more co-operation against Iran and an American diplomatic umbrella shielding Israel from hostile UN resolutions and attempts at delegitimisation.

The Prime Minister's agreement to the American terms last week means that the biggest hurdle has been overcome - but he still has to get it approved. The crucial vote will be in the cabinet, where he is expected to have a wafer-thin majority. Meanwhile, he will have to contend with
a majority of his Likud parliamentary faction who are clearly opposed. If it does pass through cabinet, however, he will most likely avoid a full-scale insurrection on the backbenches.

Before the Cabinet vote takes place, Mr Netanyahu has already thrown up three objections of his own.

He has demanded that the American administration makes clear that the settlement freeze will not include Jerusalem, that there will be no pressure on Israel for a further, third freeze period once the 90 days are over, and that the effort to reach an agreement on the borders will not be ultimative. In addition, he wants all this in writing.

"There should be no mistake about what was agreed last week," said a senior Israeli official involved in the negotiations with the Palestinians. "Netanyahu has committed to the Americans to define the contours of the territory that Israel will hand over to the Palestinians. The implications of this, whether or not he fulfills that commitment, are immense."

A series of uphill battles still await but, for now, Mr Netanyahu is launched on a course from which retreat can only mean a major crisis in the strategic relationship with America.

    Last updated: 3:31pm, May 31 2011