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Hussein Ibish

Biding time

The United States will most probably succeed in convincing Israel to extend its partial and temporary settlement moratorium for another two or three months. It has already offered a package of benefits that seems completely disproportionate to what is being asked for, and which even US newspaper The New York Times has described as “overly generous.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, at the time of writing of this column, declined to accept what was being offered and is apparently holding out for more. And no wonder. The US administration looks desperate, almost panicked, to keep the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians going until after the US November midterm elections.

On Thursday, Washington signed a deal long-coveted by Tel Aviv to sell the new and highly-advanced F-35 stealth fighter jets to the Jewish state, a rarefied military support that is completely unconnected to Israel's cooperation on peace. Reports said that the US administration might even commit to some kind of a long-term Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley after a Palestinian independence becomes a reality, a thing that would be considered a deal breaker for many Palestinians. In other words, Washington might be offering Israel commitments it cannot live up to in the long run.

But the bigger question remains: What is really the point behind all this?

Keeping the Middle East peace talks going is an important, laudable and essential goal. After all, nothing will ever be resolved without diplomacy. However, why the US administration is fetishizing a settlement freeze which will be short-lived and which has always been a political gimmick rather than a real restriction on settlement expansion is highly questionable. Obviously, the most immediate goal is to find a formula allowing the Palestinians to remain in the negotiations. A settlement moratorium extension would certainly guarantee that. But what then?

It is not clear what would change in eight or even 12 weeks. The only difference would be that Israel will then have under its belt a large number of US concessions and guarantees without having done anything substantial to earn them. Wouldn't the damage to the credibility and viability of negotiations and the Palestinian negotiators be even greater then?

It is possible that the US administration has a plan, but if it does, then it is the best-kept secret in Washington. No one knows what Washington expects to accomplish within two or three months should Tel Aviv agree to extend its settlement freeze. The widespread suspicion is that the US will deal with that problem when it is faced with it.

But this has to be more than an exercise in kicking the can down the road. There couldn't be a greater tragedy for the parties, the region and the political environment in general than for those who maintained from the beginning that failed negotiations would be worse than no negotiations to be proven right in the end.

The US administration now finds itself riding the tiger: in two or three months, it will probably be able to either seize the postelection moment to start really cracking heads together on peace – a thing that will come at an exorbitant price – or it can face one of the most humiliating US diplomatic failures in living memory. One thing is for certain, we are getting to the point where there really isn't a lot of middle ground left.

So, if Israel decides it makes most sense to just pocket whatever it is the US is offering in exchange for a few weeks of more of the same – even if it comes at a certain political cost to Netanyahu – then Washington will have to act quickly in order to prevent a humiliating and possibly disastrous rapid return to the political crisis of the past few weeks.

The most obvious measure would be an effort to have all parties move quickly to negotiate the future borders of a Palestinian state and to try to resolve the issue before the settlement freeze expires. While it is true that most points pertaining to the land issue have been negotiated almost to completion in the past, there is every reason to be skeptical that the present Israeli government and Palestinian leadership would be capable of reaching a formula in the immediate future that satisfies both parties. This would also leave the question of Jerusalem unresolved, and potentially explosive, unless both sides agree to maintain the status quo along the lines of the Clinton parameters, with Israel only building in established Jewish neighborhoods.

It would probably make more sense to focus in the immediate future on realities on the ground, deliverables that will improve the quality of life for both parties, such as increased security arrangements for the Israelis and an expansion of the Palestinian Authority’s role in West Bank Areas B and C that are presently under Israeli control. But until the crisis over settlements, which is not only an Israeli-Palestinian problem, but an Israeli-US one as well, is resolved rather than endlessly postponed, it is not going to be possible even to focus on modest deliverables, let alone permanent status issues.

Hussein Ibish is a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.ibishblog.com