Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he may enforce a partial freeze on settlement construction in the contested lands of the West Bank, but Palestinians say that is not enough.
Under intense international pressure, Israel in late 2009 declared a ten-month freeze on settlement building in the West Bank. The moratorium, however, is due to expire on September 26, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to walk out of the peace negotiations if Israel does not agree to a total ban.
On Sunday, Netanyahu continued to keep observers on both sides of the fence guessing as to how he would placate the increasingly determined Israeli settlers on the one side, and the Palestinian negotiators on the other.
However, when he remarked, “We will not freeze the lives of the residents,” it is probably safe to say that he was not defending the interests of the Palestinian people over those of the Israelis.
Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, responded to Netanyahu’s comment by asserting there could be no “half solutions”.
“If it chooses any kind of settlement building, this means that it has destroyed the whole peace process and it would be fully responsible for that,” Erekat said, as quoted by the Associated Press.
Now, the Quartet on the Middle East – which is comprised of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia – fears the settlement hurdle could sink the talks before they even get out of the dock.
One unnamed Israeli official in Netanyahu’s government blamed the Palestinians’ “all or nothing” strategy on West Bank settlement construction that risks disrupting Middle East peace talks before they even get off the ground.
“This attitude of all or nothing has over the past year led to stagnation, with the result that, in nine months of construction freeze, there were no negotiations,” the high-ranking official said, as quoted by Haaretz, the Israeli daily.
Meanwhile, Nabil Shaath, another senior Palestinian negotiator, said the Israeli leader’s statements on the issue of settlements were “confusing and conflicting,” and that the Palestinians were waiting to speak directly with Netanyahu.
Shaath added that past concessions on settlement construction had ended up being “cover-ups for an unlimited amount of expansion that is very difficult to assess and track.”
According to Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group, at least 2,066 approved housing units are ready for construction once the settlement moratorium comes to an end, while an additional 11,000 units that do not require further government approval are ready to go.
“There are apparently hundreds more housing units ready for construction as soon as the freeze ends, but the ground works have not yet begun and there is not available information about them,” the report read.
The report was issued on Monday, a day before Palestinian and Israeli leaders are set to begin the second round of direct negotiations in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt that begins today.
The problem with the Israeli settlement construction is that it is occurring in territory that was seized from the Palestinians following the Six Day War in 1967. For some Israelis, it is part of their historic and biblical birthright to control land that belongs to “Greater Israel”. Meanwhile, others argue that from a strategic point of view Israel must control the West Bank in the event of another attack.
Critics of Israel’s position often point to UN Security Council Resolution 242, which states the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” regardless of whether the war in which the territory was acquired was offensive or defensive in nature.
Those who defend Israel’s claims on the territory argue that since the area has never (in modern times) been a sovereign state, there is no “legitimate” claimant to the area other than the present occupier, which is currently Israel. Meanwhile, with every new settlement development that appears in the West Bank the prospects for a bona-fide Palestinian state looks dimmer as the Israeli settlers’ determination to hold onto their property hardens.
For Netanyahu, the issue has been allowed to escalate over the years into what is becoming a full-blown political crisis, with many voices advocating Israel’s right to the settlements.
The Yesha Council, for example, the West Bank settlers’ umbrella organization, said in a statement on Monday that any continuation of the settlement moratorium would lead to “severe political instability within Israel and the ultimate collapse of the current government.”
At the same time, Avigdor Lieberman, the provocative Israeli foreign minister, said his hard-line Yisrael Beitenu party was powerful enough to defeat any attempts to extend the settlement freeze.
“Yisrael Beitenu has enough power in the government and in parliament to ensure that no such proposal succeeds,” he said.
It is this political environment inside of Israel that gives the Palestinian side pause.
“The Israelis say we are being unreasonable by demanding a total ban on their illegal settlements,” said one veteran Palestinian negotiator, who spoke without attribution due to his involvement in the talks. “But what they refuse to acknowledge is that they are steadily making redundant the very thing that we are negotiating over, and that is Palestinian claims to the land.”
“How can anybody reasonable speak of a two-state solution when the land for the second state is being removed from the equation?” he asked.
The present Road Map for Peace proposed by the Quartet on the Middle East envisages a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, with East Jerusalem serving as the Palestinian capital.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday played down the Palestinians’ hard stance on Jewish settlements, leaving open the possibility that she and her host, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, would be able to keep the two sides focused on more crucial issues.
“There’s a lot of ways get to the goal, and the goal is to work toward agreement on core issues,” Clinton told reporters during the flight to Sharm el-Sheikh.
“For me, this is a simple choice: no negotiations, no security, no state,” she added.
On Wednesday, the talks will move to Jerusalem, and on Thursday Mrs. Clinton will travel to Ramallah in the West Bank for private talks with President Abbas. From there, Clinton will travel by motorcade to Jordan’s capital, Amman, where she is scheduled to have lunch with King Abdullah II.
Meanwhile, the international community is watching these peace talks with great interest, and even commentators in the United States are beginning to voice their opinions on the issue.
Next week’s issue of Time magazine, for example, is dedicating a story to the question: “Why Israel doesn’t care about peace,” which argues that the Israeli people are too busy enjoying “the good life” to worry about granting Palestinians their own country.
“The truth is Israelis are no more preoccupied with the matter [of peace],” the article reads, adding that Israelis were “otherwise engaged, they're making money, they are enjoying rays of the late summer.”
The issue brought a strong response out of the chief of the US-based pro-Israeli Anti Defamation League, Abraham H. Foxman.
“The insidious subtext of Israeli Jews being obsessed with money echoes the age-old anti-Semitic falsehood that Jews care about money above any other interest, in this case achieving piece with the Palestinians,” wrote Foxman.
“At the same time, Time ignores the very real sacrifices made by Israel and its people in the pursuit of peace and the efforts by successive Israeli governments of reconciliation.”
Hopefully the latest Middle East peace talks will prove to be better than all of the hype they have produced and the international community can finally close the book on this endless drama.
Alan Baker, a former negotiator for Israel, is sure consensus between the two countries is possible.
“We’ve had negotiations for many years, and we’ve reached consensus on virtually all the practical subjects,” he told RT. “So there is no reason we cannot do it again.”
However, he added, “no agreement can be applied until the Palestinian Authority, or whichever body, truly represents all of the Palestinians.”
“Implementation will depend upon the capability of both sides,” Baker added.
Middle East expert Walid Phares says that neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority has met preliminary conditions for success in the new round of talks.
“This is an ethnic conflict which has territorial disputes. First to be resolved is that both sides – Palestinians and Israelis – agree that at some point in time there will be a Palestinian state and a secure Israel,” he said. “If that is accepted, then the next stage is to be where the borders are. Now the US and the international community are asking the Israelis, for example, not to build in disputed areas. The Israelis are responding that ‘as long as we don’t have a long-term agreement with the Palestinians and the Palestinians are calling for the return of the refugees to pre-1967 border, we are going to eventually continue with this construction.’ So, the issue now is to define the borders.”
Omar Barghouti, an activist from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, called the negotiations “negations.”
Israel, he said, “negates Palestinian rights, human rights in general and respect for international law.”
“There is no chance for these talks to succeed,” he declared.