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A diplomatic tool: the “freyer” factor

So just how much pressure can and should the U.S. apply to both Israelis and Palestinians after the Annapolis conference? The “P word” -pressure– still sends chills down the spines of too many mainstream American Jewish leaders, including those who know full well that, at times, Israeli Prime Ministers have desparately needed American pressure to give them the political cover to take politically unpopular steps.

As part of my research for a book I’m working on, I’ve been talking to a wide range of left-of-center Israelis about this issue, gauging the extent to which they think the U.S. should lean hard on the Israelis and assessing the point at which diplomatic pressure will impede, rather than enhance, progress towards an agreement. It’s a complicated, thorny, emotional issue, one that deserves a more thorough examination that I can muster in today’s post. For the time being, I want to share the cool, clear wisdom of Ephraim Sneh, a leading light of Israel’s Labor party and former Deputy Defense Minister in the Olmert government.

Sneh told me last year that he believed U.S. pressure on Israel was justified when Israel was not living up to its obligations to the U.S. “Israelis don’t want to be `freyers’ [Hebrew for `suckers’]. To be a freyer is a fate worse than death to most Israelis. And they understand that Americans don’t want to be freyers either.” Therefore, he said, Israelis would support or at least not object too strongly if the U.S. prodded Israel to keep the promises made in the road map.

On Sunday, at a board meeting of Ameinu, I asked Sneh to share his perspective again on American pressure. It’s a critically important issue. Soon, the U.S. may well have to make tough decisions about how hard to lean on both parties. Both Olmert and Abbas have agreed that the U.S. will monitor and assess whether each side is keeping its promises. And, unless Olmert is more courageous than he appears to be, the time will probably come when, in the judgement of the Americans, Israel is not doing what it said it would do. Then what?

I specifically asked Sneh about the value of American pressure when it came to Israel’s settlements policy. Some brief backround:

Olmert has promised to halt Israel settlement expansion and to dismantle 24 illegal outposts in the occupied territories, in accordance with the road map. As noted in a recent article in New York Jewish Week:

If the Olmert government follows to the letter the road map’s requirements, all the development [in the territories] could come to a halt. The document requires the government to freeze “all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).”

But the precise definition of the term “settlement freeze” has long been murky. Last week, Olmert pledged not to establish any new settlements and to halt land expropriation for building. But that still allows the government to move forward on an untold number of housing units at varying stages of planning.

“They might say we’re freezing all future units, but we’re going to complete the existing units. There are many points of approval where we can argue. If you ask me, no settlement activity means no bulldozer activity,” said Hagit Ofran, the chief settlement monitor for Peace Now. “If you’re going to a peace deal, how can you continue to build when you know you’re going to evacuate?”

According to Peace Now, there is active construction in 88 of Israel’s recognized settlements and about 10 outposts. Meanwhile, none of the 24 illegal outposts Sharon promised Bush he would dismantle have come down.

How likely is it that Olmert will become the first prime minister to check the 40-year expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, as he totters atop an already shaky coalition government?

It is very unlikely, without strong, vocal American insistence. But Sneh, at least, thought the issue of America’s stance on the settlements wasn’t all that complicated.

“You don’t need a satellite photo to judge whether or not the settlement outposts are taken down. It will be clear…” On the definition of settlement expansion, he said, “It is clear what this means. If you build, if you expand, then you are violating the terms…Stop the building. Stop construction. It’s simple…Either you stop building or you don’t. Either the Palestinians arrest terrorists in Nablus or they don’t.”

He didn’t explicitly say that he backed some form of public American pressure if Olmert waffled on this issue. But, based on last year’s interview, he was clearly implying that he thought it would be helpful. (I did ask his permission to publish his comments here).

There is at least a chance that if the U.S. openly pushes both sides, Olmert will be able to point to American prodding to justify dramatic steps to stop the expansionist madness, for the first time. Abbas and Fatah will have more political cover to go the extra mile and clamp down on terrorist cells in the West Bank. Providing that political cover will require courage from the Bush Administration…and the support of all the American Jewish leaders who are uncomfortable with saying the “P-word” aloud, even though they endorse it.

I hope the Israeli government, the Israeli public and American Jewish leaders understand that Americans also don’t want to be taken for freyers. People in this country are sick and tired of this whole mess. None of the recent polls that show American support for Israel have convinced me otherwise. No amount of clever hasbara will cover up broken promises by either Israel or the Palestinian Authority. Both sides need to start keeping their word.

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