Bibi in a corner

JERUSALEM — One morning late last week, Israeli Border Police showed up at Maoz Esther, an outpost of Israeli settlers in the West Bank near Ramallah. They waited for a Bible study class to finish, tore down the settlers’ five little shacks and ran the residents off.

A few hours later, the settlers returned, nailing together the battered pieces of drywall shunted aside by the government. Maoz Esther rose again.

This kind of half-hearted approach to clearing out illegal outposts is the way Israel has always handled the settlers. (All settlements are illegal under international law, but these small, new outposts are illegal according to the Israeli government, too). The settlers understand that so long as they make a fuss over a few little shacks, they’ll be allowed to continue building in their existing government-sanctioned settlements. In this case, only 300 yards from Maoz Esther is Kokhav Ha-Shakhar, one of a series of expanding settlements skirting Ramallah whose growth has seen the settler population of the West Bank rise to 282,000 from 111,000 in 1993, when Israel signed the Oslo Peace Accord and promised not to take any more Palestinian land.

The fake evacuations have long worked for everyone — in the Israeli political leadership, at least. Right-wing Israeli governments could feel they were colonizing the West Bank to give Israel a security barrier against attack from the hostile states to the East (a defense that seems outdated now that Iran has missiles that purportedly can hit Sicily). Left-wing governments could buy support from religious parties that want to keep the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, as they call the West Bank. All of them had at least some sense that today’s settlers were only doing what their admired forefathers in the pre-State Zionist movement had done.

But now Barack Obama says the patience of the United States is at an end. During their lengthy meeting at the White House last week, the president told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take decisive action. Evacuate the illegal outposts, as Israel has repeatedly promised to do. Stop building in the older settlements, including so-called “natural growth.” (That’s Israel’s way of covering expansion of their communities by suggesting that all new homes are built to accommodate youngsters raised on the settlements now moving out of their parents homes. Israel conquered the West Bank in the Six-Day War of 1967. Under international law, countries aren’t allowed to resettle their citizens on land conquered in war. Israel maintains that, as the West Bank was previously occupied by Jordan, it’s now “disputed” and therefore not subject to this restriction.)

The official photographs suggest Obama sat with Netanyahu on the couches at the very center of the Oval Office. The reality is that he put the Israeli prime minister in a corner and pledged to keep him there until he lives up to the promises his predecessors failed to keep.

On the subject of predecessors, Israeli commentators responded to the Washington meeting with the acknowledgement that the country had it easy for some years with President George W. Bush. Those days are over and, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s former bureau chief put it in an editorial, “We’re in trouble.”

Trouble because if Netanyahu does what Obama wants, he’ll lose the support of Jewish Home, a small component of his coalition. But he’ll also go against the views of many within his own Likud Party, including some of his ministers. It might not go down too well with Yisrael Beitenu, the right-wing party that’s the second-largest member of the coalition. Its leader Avigdor Lieberman makes his home in a West Bank settlement not far from Bethlehem.

Trouble, also, because if Netanyahu decides to defy Obama he risks just about the only Israeli diplomatic relationship that isn’t shaky. A Palestinian peace deal is important to Obama to show the Muslim world that he’s sincere about a new direction and reconciliation between the West and Islam. Israeli commentators have noted with trepidation that Obama’s first visit to the region as president will be next month in Cairo, not Jerusalem.

Perhaps the biggest problem for Israel is that everyone — politicians, commentators, people on the street — doubt that Netanyahu has the guts to forge a path in the face of opposition either from the settlers or the United States and don’t trust him not to sell them out, either.

What will Netanyahu do?

Try to continue the existing Israeli modus operandi, as witnessed at Maoz Esther, until Obama calls him on it again. That’s what virtually every Israeli prime minister has done in the past, and Netanyahu will surely test Obama’s resolve.

His second line of defense — if Obama complains about his first strategy — will probably be that the previous Israeli government reached an understanding with President Bush to cherrypick between different kinds of construction on occupied land.

Under those unwritten understandings, according to Israeli officials, Israel was allowed to go ahead with building in East Jerusalem, in the proximity of existing large settlements, and within the boundaries of isolated settlements. Tiny outposts like Maoz Esther would be removed.

Well, Israel hasn’t even fulfilled that much of its promises, but Obama’s response to such a defense will be: Bush never wrote that down, and in any case I’m not Bush.

Netanyahu’s next line of defense will be to deflect American discontent with Israel in the direction of the ruinous Palestinian political scene.

Last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ordered the formation of the Palestinian Authority’s thirteenth government in 14 years. Hamas, which technically controls the parliament and rules in Gaza, rejected the new government as illegal. (They already say that Abbas’ term is up and that he’s an illegal president.)

Many leaders of Abbas’s own Fatah faction said they wouldn’t support the new government either, because of a dispute over the failure of the leadership to call a party congress. They want a meeting to reform Fatah’s structure and sweep out some of its tired, corrupt old hacks.

Netanyahu will be hoping that, with the Palestinian chaos shutting the door on real peace talks now, a few gestures like the one at Maoz Esther will illustrate the risks he’s prepared to take to appease Washington. But it’s hard to imagine this will be enough for Obama if his clear directive in Washington was based on real diplomatic intentions, and not rhetoric.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Israel:

Pope's visit satisfies few

Two Israeli politicians to keep an eye on

The Black Hebrews of Israel