Settler policy rests on history of Israel's tactical deceptions
The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, urging him to use his new unity government to advance the peace process with the Palestinians. In particular, she looked forward to Mr Netanyahu's reply to a letter from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, so that the two could resume negotiations as soon as possible.
Mrs Clinton appears to have convinced herself that it was right-wing coalition partners that had held Mr Netanyahu back from freezing settlements and engaging in credible peace talks. But when Mr Netanyahu's letter did come, a few days later, it rejected Palestinian demands for a halt to Israeli settlement construction, and instead insisted that the Palestinians return to talks with no conditions.
In other words, the Israeli position has not changed despite broadening the coalition to include the "centrist" Kadima Party. Mr Netanyahu had simply brought in Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz to neutralise the challenge to his authority from settler extremists within Likud - hotheads who might provoke unnecessary showdowns with western governments. And, of course, those Likud settlers had planned to block Mr Netanyahu's plans to give Defence Minister Ehud Barak a place on the Likud electoral list, because he lacks a political base of his own.
The distinctions at the heart of Israeli coalition politics are tactical, rather than ideological: Israel's political spectrum, today, is dominated by variations on Likud.
Mr Netanyahu's choices on the peace process represent his own preferences. The prime minister would have had the backing of Kadima for any peace overture opposed by more right-wing coalition partners, but he chose to make none.
Mr Netanyahu has built a political career opposing and resisting the Oslo peace process. The idea that he's changed fundamentally is wishful thinking. Sure, in 2009, he said the words "Palestinian state", which had been taboo for a Likud leader, but his late father hastened to reassure the party faithful that Mr Netanyahu was simply saying what he needed to say to keep the Americans off his back.
Ben Zion Netanyahu, who died last month, wasn't wrong, of course. As the former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy recently warned, Mr Netanyahu hasn't changed - Israel has, its consensus moving closer to the Likud rejectionist positions that were shared only by a minority during the Oslo heyday.
And there's a method in Mr Netanyahu's game that dates all the way back to Israel's founding in 1948. Israel's founders didn't like the terms of the partition plan offered by the UN in 1947, but they accepted them in principle - and then substantially revised them on the ground in the war that followed in 1948, creating the Palestinian Nakba commemorated yesterday.
The UN plan awarded 55 per cent of what had been Palestine to a Jewish state, a little less than half of whose citizens would have been Arab; the end of the war put Israel in control of 72 per cent of the territory, driving out hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs to leave behind a minority of just 20 per cent.
The lesson is obvious: changing the facts on the ground in your favour is more important than what you say in diplomatic chambers.
International law and even the policy of Israel's key ally, the United States, may have forbidden settling civilians in the remaining 22 per cent of Palestine after Israel conquered that in the war of 1967, but over the decades, Israel simply changed the facts on the ground. Mr Netanyahu, in his UN speech last year, announced that one in 10 Israeli Jews now lives on land occupied by Israel in 1967.
The Oslo peace process never stopped settlement activity; on the contrary, the settler population doubled during the Oslo years, Ariel Sharon famously exhorting settlers to "run, grab hills!" before the signing of an interim agreement in 1996. Mr Sharon, like David Ben Gurion, was mindful of the demands of the international context, and the need to prevent Israel from coming under international pressure.
That was why he personally supervised the dismantling of the Yamit settlement in northern Sinai in April 1982, in line with the Camp David agreement with Egypt. Yamit was a price worth paying, in Mr Sharon's mind, for the wider goal of securing Israel's expanding realm. So were the settlements of Gaza, which he evacuated in 2005 as part of a unilateral withdrawal coordinated with the Bush administration under which the US would formalise support for Israel's continued hold on its core settlements in the West Bank.
Mr Netanyahu has also recently begun to exhibit some tactical flexibility. Under growing criticism from the European Union over settlements, he's suddenly inclined to rein in, just a little. He now seems in two minds over whether to change Israeli laws to legalise Israeli settlements such as Ulpana - and even backed Mr Barak in ordering the demolition of an illegal settlement in Hebron, reportedly out of fear of Israeli officials facing prosecution at The Hague.
The prime minister certainly wants control in his own hands, lest the settlers provoke international retaliation for their excesses.
So the question is not whether Mr Netanyahu is politically able to evacuate settlements. (The answer is probably not, because the political consensus in Israel has shifted so far to the right that most Israelis would oppose a violent showdown with other Israelis to make peace with Palestinians.)
The point, however, is that Mr Netanyahu has never signalled any intention to make any more than token gestures designed to appease international critics, knowing that the history of the past 64 years has demonstrated that things deemed impossible in one political moment have become established and intractable facts on the ground within years. Why stop now?
Tony Karon is a New-York based analyst
On Twitter: @TonyKaron
Updated: May 16, 2012 04:00 AM