Speaking yesterday at the opening of the Israeli Knesset’s winter session, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a joke, saying that he would renew a partial, temporary settlement freeze in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state:
“I will say this publicly now,” Netanyahu said. “If the Palestinian leadership would say to its people that they recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, I would be willing to gather my government and ask for an additional suspension [of settlement construction].”
He said he had passed the message along “in quiet ways,” but “regretfully, the Palestinians have yet to accept my call.”
Unfortunately, he wasn’t really joking. As has been noted before, under the 2003 Road Map, Israel already committed to freeze settlements — all settlements, indefinitely. Since then, Israel has consistently and spectacularly failed to honor that commitment. Having been traveling around the West Bank over the last couple days, I can report that fresh cement is being laid, settlements are continuing to grow, and Israel is continuing to embed more and more of its citizens in occupied Palestinian territory. These numbers don’t lie.
As opposed to a settlement freeze, the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish State is an entirely new one. What Netanyahu is essentially saying to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, then, is that, in return for Abbas meeting this new demand, Netanyahu generously offers to partially, temporarily meet one of Israel’s already existing obligations.
Of course the Palestinian Authority has refused this “offer.” Is it really unclear why? Now let’s look at some of the headlines:
The Washington Post: “Israeli prime minister offers conditional settlements freeze”
Associated Press: “Israeli PM offers conditional settlements freeze”
Ha’aretz: “Netanyahu pleads to save talks as Palestinians threaten walkout”
Jerusalem Post: “PA quashes PM’s offer for renewed building freeze”
And thus, magically, the Palestinians have threatened the talks by rejecting yet another generous Israeli offer.
So no, Bibi wasn’t making a joke. But he seems to have made pretty clear that he sees these current negotiations as one. A big majority of the Israelis and Palestinians I’ve spoken to certainly see it that way. I wonder if, after his latest stunt, the Obama administration finally will, too.