This is a new commentary by Stephen Scheinberg, an emeritus professor of history at Concordia University in Montreal:
A “gambit” is one or a series of clever opening moves in a chess game. Bibi Netanyahu has recently demonstrated a mastery of the board and has dominated the play against Barack Obama. Unfortunately, there are more than pawns to be sacrificed in this contest.
Think of your game plan, if you were the Prime Minister of Israel? If you ardently believed in a greater Israel and wanted to keep the West Bank as an Israeli colonial preserve, what would you do? If you confronted a new President of the United States who did not understand that his proper role was to support all Israeli actions, or at least not get in the way of them, how would you handle him? If this President Obama became particularly irksome with demands for a settlement freeze, as a prelude to real peace negotiations, how would you challenge him? If, at the same time, you were faced by a moderate Palestinian President, one who much of the world believed could be a party to a peace agreement, then how might you eliminate him? These, I believe, are the questions Prime Minister Netanyahu has now answered with his opening gambit.
His strategy has been to undermine the credibility of both Abbas and Obama while at the same time gaining support at home, but he wanted to minimize adverse reaction from abroad. Thus he has defied Obama and Abbas on the issue of a settlement freeze, but chosen his own strongest ground. Most American Jews and the Europeans are hostile to the West Bank settlements and even a majority of Israelis would likely give most of them up in return for a secure peace. Bibi’s strategy for what he prefers to call Judea and Samaria is to agree to a faux freeze in that area, which will only be in effect for a limited period and excludes 3000 units already under construction.
Yesha, the settler’s council has followed form and denounced him but with a wink and a nod to his right wing cabinet colleagues, Bibi won an 11-1 cabinet endorsement. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, dismissed the Palestinian rejection of the faux freeze saying, “the last thing that should interest us is the Palestinians’concern. Before the Palestinian issue, what should interest us is our friends in the world.” The cabinet understood that this “freeze” will not even slightly chill the waters of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and there will be no attempt to walk on them.
Mrs. Clinton and Senator Mitchell took the bait, to hail his action as an “unprecedented” concession, the furthest any Israeli leader had ever gone. Yet, they certainly realized how much this damaged President Abbas who had told his people that a new American administration could deliver a real freeze on both the West Bank and Jerusalem. Of course Bibi had already undermined Abba with a demand, that Bibi cleverly got President Obama to endorse, that the Palestinians not bring the Goldstone report to the United Nations, because it might undermine the prospect of negotiations.
It wasn’t enough to get the praise from Clinton and Mitchell, so Bibi tried to bring some of the Israeli peace camp on side? First, Bibi made a personal telephone call to the diplomatic correspondent of the liberal Haaretz newspaper, a call that might appeal to the vanity of any journalist. He told him that his major concerns were Iran and Hezbollah and that he would make enormous sacrifices to bring quiet on the Palestinian front in order to confront Israel’s real enemies. Bibi followed that up with a similar approach to Yossi Beilin, the immediate past leader of the Meretz party and a major mover of the Geneva Accords, but Beilin soon realized he was being duped. Now, after he had assured both of these gentlemen and their readers around the world that he had joined the peace camp, Bibi was ready for the next step.
He announced Israeli approval for building 900 new housing units in the Gilo community of East Jerusalem. This step had multiple advantages. First, Gilo is, for all practical purposes, a neighborhood of Jerusalem. Most Israelis and others believe it will be part of Israel, even if a peace deal is reached. Second, even though the legal status of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 is dubious, (the Security Council rejected it by a 14-0 vote), the emotions of Israeli and diaspora Jewry can be enlisted when it comes to Jerusalem. It was then, the perfect place to confront Obama and put another nail in the Abbas coffin. Hamas is, it would seem, better for Bibi and the settlers than Abbas because the Islamist movement is the true partner of the advocates of greater Israel. Palestinian extremism means no partner for peace, guarantees more settlement construction, and a tighter Israeli hold on Judea and Samaria.
Thus, just as Sharon used the Gaza evacuation as a means to protect his West Bank ambitions, Bibi uses Gilo to make sure that there will be no negotiations. No Palestinian leader could possibly negotiate with an Israeli government which has effectively taken East Jerusalem off the table. There is no risk for Bibi & Co. in a West Bank freeze. Netanyahu’s clever gambit leaves President Obama holding the bag. While he is occupied with the economy, healthcare and a couple of wars, will he dare to confront Israel over East Jerusalem construction? Can he afford to lose any of his support in the United States Senate because he demands a construction freeze in East Jerusalem? Bibi has, one must concede, played the game with great skill, on behalf of his precious settlements. He now has the U.S. President in check. The next move is up to Obama.
It is possible that President Obama will display sharper political skills and more courage, but there is little in his recent record to make us overly optimistic that we will see those qualities when play resumes.