As of now, the Netanyahu government does not have the votes in the Knesset to continue the building freeze in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority has threatened to walk away from the peace talks unless the freeze continues. A stalemate appears to be in the offing, unless something changes.
Polls show that Israelis do not believe that the Palestinians are really interested in making peace, especially since Palestinian Authority President Mohammad Abas has said he would never recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. A majority of Israelis say they are unwilling to make painful concessions without receiving some assurance that the prospects for peace are real. Since Israel is a vibrant democracy, Knesset members listen to their constituents. It is likely, therefore, that unless the Israelis can be persuaded that a peace deal is really in the offing, the Knesset will not vote to continue a full fledged housing freeze and the Palestinians will refuse to engage in peace talks.
The White House can change this dynamic. It can pressure the Palestinian Authority to make concessions that would show the Israeli public that they are really interested in making a peace deal. These concessions could include ending the incitement against Israelis and Jews that appear daily on official Palestinian television (the Palestinian Authority promised this in earlier peace negotiations, but has failed to live up to this promise.) It could also include ending Palestinian efforts to delegitimize Israel in international forums such as the United Nation and the International Criminal Court. Finally it could include a willingness to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
The White House could also try to persuade the Saudis to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia, as The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has suggested. In order to get the Saudis to do this, the White House would have to offer something to the Saudis as well. There is only one thing that the White House can offer both the Saudis and the Israelis: that is an iron-clad commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Such a commitment would do more to assure peace in the Mideast than any other single action by any party.
The real question that Israelis and Saudis are asking is whether the Obama Administration is actually willing to enforce a realistic "red line" that the Iranians will not be allowed to cross.
If the Iranians are allowed to develop deliverable nuclear weapons, the prospects for peace in the Middle East diminish considerably. Even if the Israelis and Palestinians were able to come to some agreement, the Iranians--operating under a nuclear umbrella--could derail any peace by encouraging their surrogates, Hezbollah and Hamas, to make life impossible for Israelis. The Palestinians cannot offer the Israelis a full peace, even if they wanted to. All they could do is assure peace on Israel's eastern border, but not on its volatile northern or western borders. An emboldened Iran, armed with nuclear weapons, would do everything in its power to scuttle any peace with Israel.
A nuclear armed Iran would also increase tensions in the rest of the Middle East, by threatening Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and other "moderate" Arab regimes. Even Fidel Castro has now turned against his former Iranian "brother," accusing Ahmadinejad of anti-Semitism and other sins. The time has come for the entire international community to recognize that the greatest single barrier to real peace and stability in the Middle East is not the Israeli-Arab conflict, but rather the threat posed by a nuclear Iran.
This is not to deny the importance of continuing the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Even a limited peace would be preferable to the status quo, but pressure on the Israelis alone will not create the conditions necessary for the peace process to continue. President Obama recognized this when, in addition to asking the Israelis to continue the freeze, he also asked the Palestinians to offer confidence-building concessions.
Freezing all building in arguably disputed areas will not be easy for Israel. Many of these areas are not really in dispute: the Palestinians have already conceded that under any peace agreement Israel will maintain control over built up areas in and around Jerusalem. Stopping all building in these areas is seen by many Israelis as entirely symbolic and somewhat punitive to families that are growing. If the Palestinians are really interested in peace, rather than in finding an excuse to walk away from the peace talks, they will accept some sort of compromise that Netanyahu is willing to offer and that the Knesset might be willing to support. Building up rather than out, and limiting building to those areas that are not really in dispute, should constitute a compromise acceptable to all sides.
Continuing an absolute freeze should not become a litmus test for continuing peace talks. The real litmus test is a willingness to continue to talk despite temporary disagreements that could be resolved by negotiation.