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The show will go on?

It ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. Israel’s 10-month settlement freeze expires at midnight Jerusalem time today, and rather than the explosion many feared — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s withdrawal  from the talks, fresh violence from Hamas, a provocation from the settlers — it looks like the moratorium will disappear with little ...

It ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Israel’s 10-month settlement freeze expires at midnight Jerusalem time today, and rather than the explosion many feared — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s withdrawal  from the talks, fresh violence from Hamas, a provocation from the settlers — it looks like the moratorium will disappear with little drama. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held his ground, while dispatch his defense minister, Ehud Barak, to offer compromise proposals that he could always disavow. Meanwhile, he urged the settlers to "show restraint" and asked his cabinet to keep quiet.

Abbas, who had vowed in no uncertain terms that he wouldn’t stay at the table unless the freeze was extended, instead kicked the decision to the Arab League, which gave him political cover to join the talks in the first place. It seems likely Arab governments will swallow their pride and instruct Abbas to continue.

Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn says that Netanyahu is emerging the big winner in this showdown, and that may be true. He’s conceded nothing while deflecting U.S. and international pressure to give way on the settlements. His coalition remains intact, and he’s proven that the United States, with all its might and power, can’t push tiny Israel around (at least, not before the midterm elections). Barack Obama took a huge risk calling on Israel to extend the moratorium at the U.N. Thursday, and now he looks ineffectual and weak.

In the end, though, this isn’t supposed to be about winners and losers. If Netanyahu is serious about peace — and it remains an open question whether he is — he’ll have to make painful concessions that probably will rip his government apart. There are at least 60,000 settlers who will have to leave their homes in the event of a peace deal, according to the estimates I’ve seen. The last time settlers were uprooted, in Gaza, it took several thousand Israeli troops to evict them.

As for Abbas, I don’t envy the man. If he’s equally serious about peace, he’ll need to tell his people that the "right of return" is dead, and that they’ll need to give up on the notion that Palestine will control its own border or have many of the other prerogatives of normal states. All the while, Hamas and various other Palestinian factions will be eagerly looking for him to fail.

For now, I guess, the talks will limp ahead.

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