Netanyahu ready to deal?

by Andrew Sprung

A month ago, in a review of Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State, Michael Crowley claimed that Clinton had given birth in May to an accidental Israel policy:

Clinton revealed at a press conference that Obama’s call for an Israeli settlement freeze included any “natural growth” within existing settlements. The circumstances remain murky, but two sources with detailed knowledge of the U.S.-Israeli relationship say that the Obama team was not yet prepared to make public this departure from Bush-era policy. Rather than leave his secretary of state twisting in the wind, says one of the sources, Obama wound up repeating her formulation a few days later, touching off months of tension with the Israelis.

Crowley further reported that Clinton's subsequent praise of Netanyahu's partial settlement freeze as "unprecedented" was also unauthorized and made the White House unhappy, since it came across as a cave-in after the White House had insisted on a total freeze.

It was also, however, true.  Today, Ethan Bronner in the Times lends a sympathetic ear to the theory that Netanyahu is seriously seeking a deal. The story highlights the extent to which Clinton's original  gaffe (if gaffe it was) may have distorted perceptions of Israeli policy:

After a long career supporting Israeli settlements in occupied land and rejecting Palestinian statehood, Mr. Netanyahu said last June that he accepted the two-state idea. Three weeks ago, he imposed a 10-month freeze on building Jewish housing in the West Bank, something no Israeli leader had done before. Settlers are outraged, and Mr. Netanyahu is facing a rebellion in his party. Together with his removal of many West Bank checkpoints and barriers to Palestinian movement and economic growth, these steps went well beyond what many ever expected of him.
Yet skepticism would be a polite way of describing the reaction of the Palestinians and much of the world, who view his steps as either too little too late or a ruse aimed at buying time to pursue his real agenda.

To put this in perspective, most Israelis are almost as skeptical as the Palestinians that Netanyahu would really pull a Begin and negotiate seriously for a two-state solution. But as Bronner notes, all but the rabid right wing in Israel are aware that the country cannot afford further diplomatic isolation.

It's worth noting too that thanks in part to Netanyahu's actions, new facts on the ground are being created -- by Palestinian economic development.  A recent account of rising prosperity on the West Bank by Tom Gross in the WSJ struck me as ideologically slanted, casting Palestinian progress largely as a result of Israeli largess. But the rising prosperity Gross reports is doubtless real:

I had spent that day in the West Bank's largest city, Nablus. The city is bursting with energy, life and signs of prosperity, in a way I have not previously seen in many years of covering the region. As I sat in the plush office of Ahmad Aweidah, the suave British-educated banker who heads the Palestinian Securities Exchange, he told me that the Nablus stock market was the second best-performing in the world so far in 2009, after Shanghai....[snip]

Palestinian economic growth so far this yearin a year dominated by economic crisis elsewherehas been an impressive 7% according to the IMF, though Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad, himself a former World Bank and IMF employee, says it is in fact 11%, partly helped along by strong economic performances in neighboring Israel.

As Andrew would say: know hope.