Settlements or security?

As Israel's settlement moratorium ended Sept. 26, the Obama administration sought a way to extend it so as to continue the direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, which the U.S. had so painfully arranged and which had only begun Sept. 2. Mr. Abbas was unwilling to resume direct talks until Israel pledged to once again stop settlement construction, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was under intense pressure from his settler constituency to refuse any more moratoriums. The U.S., acting apparently on the urging of Dennis Ross (who, as in the Clinton administration, was the critical Middle East strategist for the Obama administration), hit upon a plan to offer Israel major security benefits if it accepted a three-month extension of the moratorium. Mr. Netanyahu has yet to decide to do so.

To pressure Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Ross appears to have leaked the offer to David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a highly regarded think tank in Washington which tends to be sympathetic to Israel, and Mr. Makovsky made the security offer public. The Ross strategy appeared to be that if the Israeli public learned of the major strategic advantages Israel was getting for the three-month moratorium extension, security-minded Israelis would counter the pressure from the settlers and enable Mr. Netanyahu to accept the deal.

The underlying premise of the U.S. strategy was that during the three-month period of direct negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could — thanks to the renewed moratorium — come to an agreement on provisional boundaries for the new Palestinian state, thus rendering moot the issue of continued Israeli settlement construction in territories Israel would keep in the West Bank (in return for land swaps elsewhere).

The security offers were very significant. First, Israel would obtain an additional squadron of 20 F-35 strike fighters, to go along with the 20 Israel had already agreed to purchase, and which would arrive in 2015. The F-35 Stealth Fighter is touted to be the best fighter plane in the world, and it would help Israel to maintain its command of the air vis-a-vis its Arab and Iranian enemies. Second, Israel and the United States would conclude a major security pact, thus further contributing to Israel's security if it expressly linked an Arab or Iranian attack on Israel to direct U.S. retaliation. Third, as mentioned in the Makovsky article, (although not in subsequent New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reports of the offer) the U.S. would go along with a long-term Israeli presence along the eastern boundary of the new Palestinian state to prevent smuggling of weapons such as anti-tank missiles and surface-to air missiles to which Israel would be very vulnerable. Finally, the U.S. pledged to prevent any action against Israel in international forums such as the United Nations Security Council, an institution which the Palestinians have said they would use to unilaterally proclaim a Palestinian state.

To be sure, there have been critics of the offer. Palestinians have called it a "bribe," and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurzer, now at Princeton University, has said it rewards Israel for its "bad behavior." Others point to the difficulty of drawing even provisional borders in three months and question whether the Palestinians would ever agree to the placement of the settler city of Ariel, located in the middle of the West Bank, in Israeli territory. Perhaps most difficult of all is the question as to whether East Jerusalem would be left out of the three-month moratorium — reportedly a deal-breaker for the Palestinians, but at the same time an absolute requirement for the Israeli religious party Shas.

On balance, however, the benefits accruing to Israel from the U.S. offer are so great in terms of security that Mr. Netanyahu would be making a huge mistake to turn it down, pleading opposition from members of his coalition, even if the moratorium included East Jerusalem. He always has the option of including the Kadima Party in his coalition if the right-wing parties (such as Shas) defect.

In many ways, this is the most important test Mr. Netanyahu has yet faced. Will he choose settlements and thus jeopardize Israeli security, or will he accept the American offer and thereby assure Israel's security well into the future? He has yet to answer this question.

Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University and is visiting professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. His publications include "Israel Under Rabin," and the forthcoming "Six Decades Of U.S.-Israeli Relations." His e-mail is

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