Four months ago Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu walked out of his meeting with Obama pale faced. Apparently he did not expect such determination on the settlement issue. It took him a while to realize that he could not play the same games with the new administration that worked with Bush. This time there is a real intention to move the political process forward and that requires an absolute settlement freeze.
Netanyahu, who before the elections promised to build in the settlements and in the controversial E1 neighborhood, today finds his natural allies, the settlers and the right wing parties, launching a campaign against him and demonstrating exactly where he promised to build all those years.
At the same time last week the Israeli government announced the approval of 455 new housing units in the settlements and the construction of 486 housing units in Pisgat Ze'ev in East Jerusalem.
Today, at the eve of his meeting with US Envoy George Mitchell, Netanyahu announced that Israel will continue to build in some settlements and in East Jerusalem.
So what is going on here? Are we heading for a settlement freeze, as the Israeli right fears? Or is the intention is to continue building in the territories and move further apart from achieving peace?
It is hard to know. Here are several possible explanations for what is happening.
1. The announcements and permits are meant to soothe the settlers before the freeze. Netanyahu is trying to score a few points with his audience, the right wing and the settlers, to reduce their criticism and to have an achievement he can show them before the freeze really begins.
By the way, the settlers did not react happily to the construction permits. They claimed these are housing units that were supposed to be built anyway and in some cases construction of their infrastructures already began, so that as far as they're concerned this is not significant building.
2. Netanyahu got cold feet before the freeze, and is trying to test the Americans to find out whether he has wiggle room with the freeze. He is testing it with "small things," construction that is supposed to happen anyway in what Israel calls the "settlement blocs," to see if he can get away with it.
3. Netanyahu is trying to create a real threat, a sword hanging overhead, in case of failure of the political process: "If the political process fails I am going to start building immediately, everything is ready." A real freeze would include not only actual construction but also all of the plans in preparation for construction. Netanyahu may be trying to prepare a reserve of construction projects for the moment the talks fail and he can always threaten, 'if this doesn't work I am going to build immediately.'
4. Finally there is also the possibility that Netanyahu decided to destroy the political process and prevent the freeze. If true, this means that Netanyahu decided to open a front against our greatest friend, the US, and miss the opportunity for peace with the whole Arab world, just to build another 500 housing units in a few settlements.
If Netanyahu really is planning to sabotage the process, we could have expected him to choose something more serious: he could declare another provocative project in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, he could announce construction in E1 and so on (but maybe I shouldn't give him any ideas).
Nobody thought it would be easy to bring Israel, and certainly not a right-wing government, to agree to stop construction in the settlements and to begin a political process with the Palestinians. Nobody thought Netanyahu would go easily and happily into what are difficult concessions for him. If he goes, he goes kicking and screaming. It is precisely these things that may indicate this is really serious.
This is background noise. There is a lot of pressure on the Israeli government both nationally and internationally, the closer we get to the moment of truth the louder the noise.
We must continue the negotiations regardless of the leaks and the noise until we reach an agreement.
There may be many more provocations on the way, not only by the government of Israel but also by extreme elements on both sides, who will do everything to undermine chances for an agreement.
We need patience and to focus on what is important, the beginning of a political process that will finally lead to an agreement to end the conflict.