As Netanyahu Faces Obama, Anxious Settlers Sharply Change Tune

Like many an Israeli who travels to the United States, on the eve of the prime minister's visit to Washington this week, Benjamin Netanyahu was saddled with loads of unwanted baggage, courtesy of people who do not much like him, but who need a favor.

Netanyahu would surely have preferred that his meeting with Barack Obama be about Iran policy. But the excess baggage was there in the room: the settlement issues increasingly at the fulcrum of the Obama administration's Mideast peace policy, and consistently the primary point of friction between the White House and Israel.

To make sure, settler leaders are marking this week's Washington visit with sharp changes in tactics -- most of them directed against Netanyahu -- and a startling change in narrative.

The opening gun came this weekend. The Yesha Council, the principal voice of the settlement movement, took out large ads in Israeli newspapers, showing a wan, bloated Netanyahu, and warning him against bowing to possible U.S. pressure to extend the settlement freeze he promised would end in September. The cost, the ads hinted ("We voted for you because you gave us your word"), could be his job.

The right's more radical quarters were more explicit. According to Army Radio, right-wing activists plan to put up large numbers of posters reading "Netanyahu is Bad for the Jews," as part of a campaign to thaw the freeze by setting up new, unauthorized settlement outposts.

The most intriguing element of the current pro-settlement campaign is a palette of talking points given a public try-out this week by Yesha settlers council CEO Naftali Bennet. What the points demonstrated, if nothing else, is that the Israeli public has either tired of, or has come to disagree with, the past arguments of the settlers. Time for something unexpected.

The first new tack presented the settlers as facilitators of the peace process and other diplomatic moves they have long and strongly opposed.

Playing on the Yesha newspaper campaign's emphasis on the word "milah," which literally means word but also can indicate a promise, as in word of honor, Bennet alluded to additional connotations, that of clout and authority.

If this nation has no milah, what incentive does Abu Mazen have to make progress with it toward an accord? What incentive does Hamas have to move forward on the Shalit deal? What incentive does [Turkish Prime Minister] Erdogan have to lift the pressure?

The second shift in message came when influential radio interviewer Razi Barkai pressed Bennet on the subject of diplomatic progress. How would a major Palestinian concession, for example, agreement to Netanyahu's condition to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, affect Bennet's views on settlement construction, Barkai asked. "Even then, for you, isn't a freeze on settlement construction still out of the question?"

Suddenly, the second jagged shift of narrative. "Certainly," Bennet replied:

Look, when we speak about Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], this is not just a sectoral interest of the settlers. Judea and Samaria is a belt of defense against refugees, millions of refugees, eight million refugees according to the Arabs, who would stream in from Arab countries.

Certainly -- we have to stay there and stay there forever, not only stay there, but strengthen that wall, Israel's wall of defense.

And then, without so much as a taken breath, the third turn: portraying the settlers as Gazans, penned in, beset by hardship, unable to provide good lives for their little children.

This is not the settlers' matter, although I can tell you that the situation on the ground today for 320,000 settlers is very tough. The state of Israel is today choking off their very lives.

A person wants to send his kid to day care, but doesn't have anyplace to send him to, because there's no room.

"There's never been anything like this in Israel's history," Bennet said. "This freeze is an immoral act, and certainly not Zionist."

The abrupt shifts in emphasis effectively distanced the Yesha Council from its own campaign pressing Netanyahu to "Keep Your Word" and end the freeze in September. If the initial newspaper campaign fell flat, the reasons are not difficult to discern.

Bennet, who served for a time as Netanyahu's bureau chief when the Likud leader was head of the opposition, knows why as well as anyone: The public little expects Netanyahu to keep his word. In fact, the public expects even less honesty from the Yesha Council.

For more than four decades, the settlement movement has distinguished itself in bending, defying, ignoring, exploiting, autonomously redefining and retroactively manipulating the law, the judicial system, the civil government and the military of Israel. All Israelis know it. Many approve of it. Most suffer it in silence. But everyone knows it.

It is slowly dawning on the settlers that they have lost the support of the bulk of Israel's public, and that they never had the kind of support they believed they did. In the past, the spikes of support in their favor have come almost exclusively from Israeli reactions to Palestinian suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israeli cities and towns. The profound political and diplomatic disarray of the Palestinian national movement over the last decade has also aided the settlers, by default.

At a time when Palestinian militants are largely silent, how long will the public continue to support the crushing cost of the settlements, the ever-expanding price to Israel's diplomatic standing, its military burdens, and the diversion of much needed resources to correct social-welfare burdens within the country?

Caught between an unsympathetic White House and an Israeli public which is much more apathetic than supportive, how long can the settlement movement depend on the Palestinians to keep them where they are?