Dealing with Mr. Yes and No

Back in the days of Binyamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, more than ten years ago, he was satirized as Mr. Yes and No. For every "yes" he delivered to US President Bill Clinton or PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, there was also a "no" or, if you like, a "yes" to the settlers and other opponents of the peace process. That appears to be where we are today, once again.

The ten-month settlement freeze was a "yes", primarily to President Barack Obama, and a dramatic "no" to the settlers. For a change, a genuine attempt is apparently being made to enforce this prohibition, too. But the "no" to a peace process–indeed, to the very concept of a two-state solution–was quick to come, in the form of Netanyahu’s proposal to award "area A" development status, with its concomitant financial benefits, to outlying and provocatively-located settlements like Yitzhar and Tapuach.

Thus does Mr. Yes and No seek to placate the parties who are pressuring him. Obama and the international community want peace gestures; so does Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the rag-tag remnants of his Labor party. Hence the freeze. The settlers want to continue expanding, if possible with government support. Hence the development money. Interestingly, Netanyahu does not appear to perceive significant pressure on the part of the PLO, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab world in general, hence he can afford for now to keep his zigzag two-dimensional.

Which pressures are likely to prevail? The settlers’ strategy is much easier to figure out than Obama’s. The American president appears to be increasingly preoccupied with Afghanistan and disillusioned with the Arab-Israel peace process and with the vagaries of both Palestinian and Israeli politics. How much more effective pressure he can direct toward Netanyahu or PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas is questionable.

The settlers, on the other hand, are responding to the construction freeze with their usual energy, faith-based dynamism and organizational capability. They appear to have developed a combination of two integrated strategic concepts.

First is preemption and prevention: the settlers fear that the freeze–which, after all, is only for ten months and does not affect 3,000 current construction projects, construction in East Jerusalem or public buildings–is really the beginning of the end for the West Bank settlement enterprise. They regret not having fought harder against the Gaza pullout in 2005. They see a dangerous pattern here. They are determined to render the freeze unenforceable so there can be no follow-up.

Second is defense and intimidation. The settlers are witness to a right-wing government caving in to American peace pressures and turning against them. They want to set it back on the course they originally prescribed for it: enabling them to expand their grip on the West Bank.

The most dangerous provocation against the freeze carried out thus far by settlers is setting fire to a mosque in a village near Nablus. While the Netanyahu government has condemned this act and will hunt down the perpetrators, it does not seem to understand that under current circumstances, every financial concession it makes to the settlers, every compromise it offers an extremist West Bank rabbi calling upon IDF soldiers to mutiny, merely encourages such acts of extremism.

Here the government really is playing with fire. A violent Palestinian response to the mosque-burning could begin to unravel all the security, economic and institution-building progress registered over recent months by the Salam Fayyad government, thereby negating the very purpose of the settlement construction freeze.

We have already noted the relative absence of Arab, especially Palestinian, pressures as apparently perceived by Netanyahu. The most effective and constructive pressure that Abbas could possibly exercise right now is to acknowledge the settlement freeze, problematic and inadequate as it is, as the response he needed in order to enter into immediate and accelerated peace negotiations. He would have the backing of the Obama administration and most of the Israeli public. He would really put Mr. Yes and No on the spot.