Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement "falls short" (in George Mitchell's words) on so many dimensions, reasonable people will conclude that it is simply a piece of theater, meant to appease the Obama administration, and public opinion around the world, particularly in the wake of the Goldstone report:
The freeze allows for the completion of 2,500 partially-built housing units and the construction of 492 new apartments. It does not apply to buildings like schools and synagogues. It does not take into account that the actual drivers of new settlement are not in the government, but fanatic settlement organizations that have been acting more or less independent of government decisions for years, and which the state does not have the manpower (or the army, the stomach) to confront with military force. The freeze does not apply to East Jerusalem, a greatly expanded zone (70 square kilometers) in the heart of the West Bank--historically, Palestine's biggest city, commercial hub, and the site of the mosques. Oh, and the freeze will only last ten months.
In effect, Netanyahu has followed the route of Sharon and Olmert before him on "Judea and Samaria," running like Menachem Begin and governing like Golda Meir: at first refusing to budge, then offering to take a five foot leap over the eight foot pit. No wonder the PA's Saeb Erakat announced almost immediately that the Israeli government's step was "unsatisfactory." No wonder, almost immediately, Avigdor Lieberman told Israel's Reshet Bet early this morning, "the response of the Palestinians is the last consideration the Israeli government's order of priorities." The point, he said, was mainly to attend to relations with Israel's friends, the (so he says) "17 countries" around the world that have supported Israel on the Goldstone report but have otherwise been drifting into hostility. (When you have Lieberman in the government, leaks are superfluous.)
AND YET LIEBERMAN'S admission is precisely what should get our attention. The question was never what Netanyahu would do for the Palestinians. The question was, what could the Obama administration make him do for it. And the critical move Netanhayu made for America here was to affirm, pretty much explicitly, that making critical moves for America was Israel's most important strategic priority; that, by implication, the idea that Israel could simply get what it needed from America by sicking AIPAC on the Senate is nonsense. You can feel the diplomatic isolation here growing everyday. And what government will resume settlements openly against American wishes?
As I've insisted before, the real divide in Israeli politics is between the party of Greater Israel and the party of (let's call it) Greater America; between the people who see Israel from the holy land up, and people who see it from globalization down; between the nut-jobs who take diplomatic isolation for granted, and the elites who fear diplomatic isolation will be followed by economic isolation. Netanyahu has always tried to keep a foot planted in both worlds, or at least run in the former and govern in the latter. This move suggests he is finally admitting his lean toward globalization.
Proof positive is the reaction of Uzi Landau, the biggest nut-job in the cabinet, and the (largely orthodox Mizrahi) Shas Party, who look at Israel's elites a little like the way Sarah Palin looks at Warren Buffet. Landau, alone, opposed the vote, while Shas absented itself. The West Bank Council will meet "in emergency session" later this afternoon.
NO ONE CAN say whether Netanyahu's "freeze" will be enough to bring Mahmoud Abbas into negotiations, but something is happening here, and I'm not at all sure Abbas is that relevant to it. By all accounts, we will shortly have a deal for Gilad Shalit, and among the prisoners to be released is Marwan Barghouti--or so he says. Barghouti will assuredly run for president, is close to Hamas and is the only Fatah figure who can unify Palestinians--a people with globalist elites and "religious" sociopaths of their own. By indirectly negotiating with Hamas for Shalit's release, Netanyahu is handing Hamas a big concession, too. The short-fall of his "freeze," and deal with Hamas for Shalit, both make Abbas look bad.
On the other hand, if all of this were a chess game, the board is not looking so bad for Obama just now, even if the situation on the ground has never looked more explosive. Shalit's release would not only bring Barghouti into play--that is, allow for the creation of a united negotiating partner committed to a two-state solution--but also open up the possibility that the siege on Gaza will be lifted, giving room for West Bank businesses and international organizations to reengage there. The Syria track, or at least Turkish mediation, seems to be opening again. Meanwhile, Israeli politicians will almost certainly realign, too. The closer Netanyahu moves toward America, the closer he comes to bringing Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz's Kadima party into the coalition. The closer he comes to conceding his need for America, the greater is the Palestinian incentive to get back into negotiations.
PERHAPS IT IS foolish to say that the catalyst for all of this movement was the Goldstone report, but on the whole the report has seemed a marker along the path that got us here. As my friend David Shulman pointed out in this very thoughtful post on the New York Review's blog, the Goldstone report, for all its (largely rhetorical) flaws, has driven home to Israel's government that a great many of Israel's erstwhile friends are sick of Israel's own crimes; that they will see even acts of Palestinian terror as a function of occupation--that the occupation will be seen as a chronic provocation. Which means that any actions by Israel to counter genuine terror--especially its inevitably asymmetrical actions: tanks against guns, planes against missiles--will only deepen Israel's isolation.
Or perhaps the report simply reinforced, what we all know in our bones, that there is so much blood on so many hands by now that the very idea of "moral high-ground" mocks our condition. That peace is the only idea that isn't boring.