Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman last month.(Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

You didn’t have to be a particularly talented tea-leaf reader to wonder whether Prime Minister Netanyahu’s capitulation to the right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu’s loyalty oath bill was intended to give him room to push through a two-month extension of the settlement freeze, which the Palestinian Authority has demanded as a condition for continued peace talks. One ought never forget that the first thing Bibi thinks of upon waking is how to hold together his hodgepodge coalition, and here was a post-coffee Eureka! moment: By allowing the hard-line bill preferred by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Bibi gains political capital to extend the freeze, thereby pacifying Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Labor Party as well as the Americans, who have offered Israel much (perhaps too much?) to keep the talks going. (The move is also payback for Netanyahu’s killing of the infamous Rotem Bill, Yisrael Beiteinu’s conversion law.)

And lo! No more than a couple hours passed before an anonymous Labor minister told Haaretz, “I hope that Netanyahu’s support is a payoff to Lieberman, so that the prime minister will be able to extend the freeze without breaking apart his coalition.” Concisely put.

The loyalty oath bill, likely to become law Sunday, would require all those assuming Israeli citizenship to swear allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state”—a thumb directly in the eyes of the 20 percent of the Israeli population that is Arab. If you are in favor of extending the construction freeze in order to keep talks going, you must reckon with the fact that this oath is what you are paying at the register.

Another way the loyalty oath maneuver functions is as a message to the Arab League, which Friday will vote on (and likely back) President Abbas’s decision to suspend talks without a freeze extension. Netanyahu has apparently been seeking cabinet approval for the extension, and is having great trouble; in addition to being the quid for the extension quo, this gambit assures the Arab League (and, again, the Americans) that Bibi is making an honest effort.

One problem with the fact that both Bibi and the Americans are throwing so much at resolving this intermediate settlement issue—in addition to the fact that it is merely intermediate—is that it is not at all clear that settlements are the main obstacle to peace. (Which is not to minimize their historic role in the conflict, nor Israeli culpability for them.) As experienced negotiator Aaron David Miller argued last weekend, “even if the settlement issue were resolved today, negotiations would still confront another galactic challenge: a crisis within the Palestinian national movement, with two authorities governing two discreet areas with two different security services, two different patrons and two different visions of the Palestinian future.” Or as another experienced hand, David Makovsky, noted, “It would be a bitter irony if a final peace resolution and the demarcation of a two-state solution were derailed due to problems with managing the lesser issue of the moment.”

One imagines the t-shirt the satirist will draw Bibi as wearing: “I tried to keep talks going another two months, and all I got was this loyalty oath.” This lousy loyalty oath.

Victory for Israel’s Right as ‘Jewish state’ Loyalty Oath Nears Vote [Haaretz]
Labor Expects New Settlement Freeze as Payoff for Loyalty Oath [Haaretz]
PM Testing Waters in Cabinet on Freeze Extension [JPost]
Related: Five Myths About Middle East Peace [WP]
Dear Prime Minister: U.S. Efforts To Keep the Peace Process on Track [Washington Institute for Near East Policy]
Editor’s Notes: Caught by a Red Herring [JPost]