Building by not building in the West Bank

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton fumbled in Jerusalem last month when she hailed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to temporarily freeze West Bank settlement construction as “unprecedented,” thereby suggesting it was somehow optimal. The 10-month freeze is far from ideal, because it allows completion of nearly 3,000 housing units and 28 public buildings already underway in the West Bank, and it doesn’t include development in contested East Jerusalem. Still, it is important to acknowledge that this isis an unprecedented step for the right-wing Netanyahu, who has built a career out of opposing concessions to the Palestinians or negotiations for a separate state.

The man who helped stymie the Oslo peace accords during his first term as prime minister in the 1990s has declared himself willing to bargain in his second. Like Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert before him, Netanyahu gives the impression of having concluded that separate Israeli and Palestinian states are the best means of ensuring Israel’s survival as a Jewish state. With caveats and preconditions, Netanyahu stated in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in June that he was ready to negotiate an agreement “where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.” After declaring the temporary freeze, his government has sent inspectors into the settlements to enforce stop-work orders.

What Netanyahu is doing is potentially risky given the increasingly militant settler fringe. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995 by a Jewish fanatic opposed to relinquishing land. Now, second-generation settlers in the “price tag” movement are confronting construction inspectors and provoking clashes with Israeli soldiers and Palestinians to derail any possibility of negotiations for a land swap; extremists left their price-tag signature in the ruins of a torched village mosque. Tensions are escalating.

Both sides need to exercise courage against their radical extremes. Most Palestinians and many Israelis see Netanyahu’s actions as tactical maneuvers -- half-steps designed to put the ball in the Palestinians’ court and then declare them at fault. Indeed, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, under pressure from the militant Hamas, has already rejected the freeze as insufficient to warrant a return to negotiations. And Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told settlers last week that “it is clear to everyone that in 10 months, we will be building again full force.”


But the extremes must not prevail. Although 17 years of on-again, off-again negotiations have failed, Israelis and Palestinians still want their leaders to deliver two states. The basic outlines of a deal are known to both sides. They should get back to the table and hammer it out.