What Israel Learned From Arafat

Tomorrow's Netanyahu-Obama summit has Iran, Gaza, and settlments on the agenda, but the Israeli leader will bring a new tactic learned from an old nemesis. Matt Rees explains "the Arafat."

05.17.09 7:11 AM ET

When he was Israeli prime minister the first time round, Benjamin Netanyahu was endlessly frustrated by the way the late Yasser Arafat used to obfuscate in peace talks. Specifically, Arafat’s favored technique was to pretend something entirely unexpected was actually on the agenda, as a way of deflecting discussion of a topic on which he felt he’d have to concede. It was a big contrast with Netanyahu’s confrontational way of doing business. In his decade out of office, however, Netanyahu says he learned a lot and that he’s a different kind of prime minister this time. One clear difference: He learned how to pull an Arafat.

Open up a few checkpoints and haul a handful of settlers out of the shipping containers in which the more radical ones live, and it’ll make him look like he’s playing ball. In fact, just by holding off on a bombing raid to Iran, Netanyahu will be able to tell President Obama he’s made a concession.

Netanyahu’s visit to Washington tomorrow ought to see him under pressure to halt Israel's continued settlement expansion. That's what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled on her visit to Jerusalem in early March. Since then, Israel hasn’t followed through on a pledge to pull settlers out of the remote outposts that even the Israeli government says are illegal, let alone halt building in bigger settlements.

Arafat constantly shifted the negotiating ground under the feet of one Clinton—ultimately with the disastrous consequences of a second intifada. Netanyahu’s trying to do the same to the other Clinton, switching the debate to issues the U.S. and Palestinians thought had been conceded long ago. Now if he agrees to a two-state solution, it'll make him look flexible. If he opens Gaza's checkpoints to allow in all food aid, he'll look compassionate. Meanwhile, on the ground nothing will have changed and the new administration will have lost a chance to shift the peace process out of Bushie neutral.

“Bibi will let Obama have a charade of progress,” says Dan Schueftan, director of Haifa University’s National Security Studies Center, referring to Netanyahu’s boyhood nickname, which he’s universally known by here. “There’ll be no substance.”

In other words, open up a few checkpoints and haul a handful of settlers out of the shipping containers in which the more radical ones live, and it’ll make him look like he’s playing ball. In fact, just by holding off on a bombing raid to Iran, Netanyahu will be able to tell President Obama he’s made a concession.

It'd be tricky for Obama to insist that he isn't going to play this game, particularly as the Israelis have worked so hard to convince the U.S. that they might just strike against Iran. Hard enough to force Obama to send CIA Director Leon Panetta to Jerusalem this month to lean on the Israelis for breathing space. Even under President Bush, Pentagon officials hurried to the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv to plead against an attack on Iran.

The Israelis aren’t particularly keen to go it alone, but Netanyahu has warned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions at least twice since he took office. People close to him call it an obsession. He even buttonholed Pope Benedict XVI about it in Nazareth on Thursday. The obsession isn’t new. When I interviewed him in 1998, he was keener to talk about Iranian nukes than checkpoints in the West Bank. Of course, he told me then that Iran would have nuclear weapons within four years. (Perhaps he’d already started to learn the distract-and-disarm lessons of Arafat….)

As Iran is also the priority for Obama, Netanyahu’s betting he’ll settle for face-saving measures on the Palestinian front in return for Israeli cooperation with his Iran policy. Political players here in Israel reckon Netanyahu will agree to let the U.S. try talks with Iran until the fall or perhaps a little later. By then, they say, Netanyahu assumes the talks will have failed and Obama will come on board with Israeli hopes for a strike against Iran, or major international sanctions.

What will those face-saving measures be? Netanyahu’s tactic could be an easing of restrictions on aid to rebuild the Gaza Strip after the devastating war there at the turn of the year. Israel’s Defense Ministry has blocked construction materials, as well as some types of food (rice OK; pasta no), from entering Gaza, even after an international conference promised $5.2 billion in aid in March.

Despite the complaints of humanitarian organizations, donor nations like the U.S. aren’t really so concerned about the blockade. They worry that Hamas, which rules in Gaza, would commandeer construction materials to rebuild its military installations after the devastation of Israel’s bombardment. Donors are unlikely to make too much of a stink about Gaza until Hamas yields a foothold there to Washington’s favorite Palestinians, the West Bank government of President Mahmoud Abbas. (“He’s not even a hologram, he’s a rumor,” says Haifa University’s Schueftan of the Palestinian leader.)

On the ground, Israeli settlers are content with the prospects for growth in their communities. Standing before a satellite photo blown up to cover an entire wall of his conference room, Malachi Levinger, mayor of Kiryat Arba, shows me his plans to expand the 7,000-person settlement, which neighbors the West Bank’s biggest Palestinian town, Hebron. “Bibi said during the election campaign that we’d move ahead with building,” says Levinger, running his hand along the satellite image to outline the thousands of acres where he plans soon to construct at least an additional 140 new buildings—and up to 2,000 more slated for the coming years.

Since Netanyahu took office just over a month ago, Levinger says that several cabinet ministers have told him the building will go ahead. “It seems like every house here needs a permit from the Americans,” he says. “But God will help us.” God, with a nudge from Netanyahu, after what should be a good day at the Oval Office.

Matt Beynon Rees is an award-winning journalist and former Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine. He is the author of Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East , and the Omar Yussef series of Palestinian crime novels, including The Collaborator of Bethlehem and The Samaritan’s Secret.