JERUSALEM, March 26, 2010 -- Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces one of the most challenging days of his political career today. At noon in Jerusalem he convenes his inner cabinet of seven senior ministers to formulate Israel's response to President Obama's demand that Israel freeze settlements in Jerusalem and put in writing a series of measures Israel will take to allow meaningful peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
As he left Washington late Wednesday, after two days of furtive but inconclusive talks with the president and his senior officials, Netanyahu tried to talk down what appear to be significant differences of opinion on how to move the process forward.
"I think that we have found the golden ground between Israel's traditional position and the desire to advance toward peace," he said.
But it seems the gaps are large and the U.S. demands, although shrouded in secrecy, strike at the heart of Netanyahu's ideological base and may even threaten his right wing coalition.
In most reports the U.S. demand to stop building settlements in occupied East Jerusalem tops the list. This is already an issue that has caused intense disagreement with his American allies. Netanyahu has repeatedly defended what he deems to be Israel's right to build anywhere in the city. The Obama administration is clearly stating that it disagrees.
Other gestures the Americans are reportedly demanding include Netanyahu's agreement to discuss the core issues of the conflict in the opening round of indirect talks. These are the sensitive final status issues which include the future borders of the two states, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the future of contested parts of Jerusalem, the division of scarce water resources and the sensitive issue of security. Netanyahu is known to be reluctant to discuss these crucial areas of dispute until direct talks take place.
The Obama administration also wants a significant Palestinian prisoner release to bolster the domestic standing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, an easing of the blockade of the Gaza Strip, an extension of the existing ten-month West Bank settlement slow down, and further reductions in the number of Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank.
Some Israelis Stand Their Ground
Key members of Netanyahu's right wing government are already making clear their opposition to the U.S. call to stop building settlements in East Jerusalem. Eli Yishai, leader of the ultra orthodox Shas Party and Minister of the Interior, told an Israeli newspaper Thursday, "I thank the creator of the universe that I have been given the privilege of being the minister who approves construction of thousands of housing units in Jerusalem...Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people. For many years we have built in Jerusalem, and we will keep building in it."
Outspoken Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was quick to add his own defiance. "I will not concede sovereignty over Jerusalem. This is not a matter for compromise, but a matter of principle, and we cannot concede," he said.
The Palestinians are refusing to enter talks until Israel freezes construction in East Jerusalem. It is where they want to build their own capital. But many Israelis claim the whole city as theirs, a claim the international community does not support.
Most Israeli commentators today say this is crunch time for Netanyahu and his government. The U.S. is demanding up front concessions that may fracture Netanyahu's right wing coalition. Ben Caspit in the mass circulation Maariv writes: "When he sits down today with his forum of seven ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu will take a look around and ask himself if the time hasn't come to change its composition. It's politics time now."
Netanyahu will probably be spared any further escalation in his crisis with the U.S. by the intervention of the Jewish festival of Passover. It is reported the Americans will wait for his response until after the holiday, in about a week's time.
Taking Off the Gloves
But then the gloves will be off. Israeli analysts say Obama has made it clear to Netanyahu that the U.S.'s ability to rally regional support against Iran and its nuclear programme depends on real progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It is a linkage that has always made Netanyahu distinctly uncomfortable. He is all too familiar with his country's reliance on American support in confronting what he has repeatedly called Israel's gravest threat.
If Netanyahu can't or won't persuade his inner cabinet today to give in to U.S. pressure, some say the U.S. may publish its own broad vision of the final peace deal, something it has been reluctant to do so far. Given the current list of U.S. demands, it is unlikely such a vision may will appeal to Netanyahu.