Netanyahu remains a prisoner of the Right

On Thursday, the Israeli PM's party approved a motion to renew settlement building in the West Bank. The premier's approval of the motion shows he is trying to appease his base, even though it may put him in conflict with the US.

Israeli men debate politics as Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu visits Jerusalem's outdoor grocery market Mahane Yehuda on February 04, 2009. Hawkish frontrunner Benjamin Netanyahu vowed he would smash Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist rulers of Gaza, if he becomes Israel's prime minister after next week's elections. AFP PHOTO/Leon Neal

JERUSALEM // However hard he tries to cast himself otherwise, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, is still a creature of Israel's party of the settlements, the Likud.

Mr Netanyahu's party on Thursday approved a motion to renew settlement construction in the West Bank when a temporary and partial moratorium runs out in September. The resolution of the Likud's Central Committee will not go down well in Washington, and mindful of his upcoming meeting with Barack Obama, the US president, Mr Netanyahu made sure not to attend the meeting. That Mr Netanyahu is nevertheless understood to have approved the motion - which was passed unanimously and among other things states that "the Central Committee favours continued construction and development in all parts of the Land of Israel, including the Negev, Galilee, greater Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]" - illustrates the balancing act Mr Netanyahu is engaged in between following his own instincts and appeasing his right-wing base, and placating an international community that appears slowly to be growing more impatient with Israeli intransigence.

While any decision of the committee is not binding on the government, the Likud decision serves timely notice to Washington that Mr Netanyahu's party remains a firm champion of the settlements. It was only his predecessor as Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, who had attained the necessary stature to take on the settlement lobby, judging it in Israel's interest to withdraw settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Mr Netanyahu is no Sharon, and his instincts have always been to please as many as possible. But pleasing his base, which still considers the West Bank and East Jerusalem an inseparable part of "Greater Israel", will put him into conflict with any US administration that is eager to see a credible peace process gain traction. The current administration has worked hard to re-launch a negotiating process between Palestinians and Israelis. Mr Obama began his presidency by forcing a highly qualified statement of support for a two-state solution from Mr Netanyahu and calling on Israel to completely halt settlement construction in occupied territory, including East Jerusalem.

Israel fiercely and successfully resisted that call, partly by mobilising its formidable support in Washington. The settlement construction slow-down in the West Bank that was eventually trashed was a compromise with Washington to provide a fig-leaf for Mahmoud Abbas, the western-backed chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, who had publicly vowed not to enter into negotiations with Israel for as long as settlement construction continued.

But the likelihood of the resulting indirect negotiations moving to direct talks is inextricably linked with the settlements. Palestinians consider continued settlement construction a direct negation of any peace process. Apart from the legal argument that civilian settlement in occupied territory is a violation of international law, how, they ask, can there be genuine negotiations over land when at the same time that land is being swallowed by settlements?

Moreover, the fact that the number of settlers in occupied territory more than doubled during the Oslo process and has now reached half a million is widely held up as the main reason those negotiations ended in failure. Palestinians are unlikely any longer to countenance a peace process that does not see settlement construction curtailed. And while Mr Abbas yesterday said he would go to direct talks if there was progress in indirect negotiations, he did not spell out what this means. Settlements construction remains a key point, something emphasised on Friday by Saeb Erekat, the PLO's chief negotiator. Israelis, he told Dan Meridor, Israel's deputy prime minister, whom he met at the International Peace Institute in New York, have to choose "settlements or peace. They can't have both."

Successive Israeli governments, whatever their ideological bent, have always used the necessity to appease the powerful settlement lobby in Israel as a tool to explain away continued construction, however, and Mr Netanyahu will undoubtedly use the same arguments when he goes to Washington in less than two weeks. But as settlements already prejudge negotiations, allowing them to continue growing cannot be a recipe for successful talks, something this US administration seems to have understood. Certainly, should the Israeli government resume unfettered construction in settlements, already slim chances of direct negotiations with the PLO will all but disappear.

And should the peace process appear moribund, that may well spell the end of the Palestinian Authority, whose existence is predicated on the promise of a Palestinian state as a result of negotiations. It is hard to see what option is left open to the PA unless it wants to continue in the role it is cast in by its critics, namely as simply helping Israel manage the occupation. Mr Netanyahu is riding high in Israeli public opinion polls in spite of having been pressured to ease the blockade on Gaza, an unpopular move in Israel. That popularity may help him override his right-wing partners, whether in the governing coalition or in his own party, to extend the current settlement construction moratorium.

Beyond that, however, it is hard to see what a man who ran for the premiership on the pledge that, "I will not evacuate communities [settlements], and I will not establish a Palestinian state", can offer any peace process that aspires to be something other than a charade.