The issues of Israeli settlement activity and the need for a settlement construction freeze are again at the top of the political agenda.
This is not least due to the baffling statement by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, hailing the current Israeli position on settlements as unprecedented. While she qualified that statement in subsequent days, it proved the final straw as far as Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, was concerned. He reacted to the statement by announcing, first in front of the PLO's Executive Committee and then in a speech to the public, that he would not be seeking re-election.
Abbas explained that his decision was prompted by a US position that continues to condone Israel's settlement project, rendering the peace process that Washington is calling for meaningless.
Clinton made two major mistakes in her statement ten days ago alongside Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. First, the Israeli position on settlements she referred to is not at all unprecedented. Statistics show that, within the definition of the settlement "freeze" the Americans conveyed to the Palestinians, Israel would be building a number of housing units equal to the average it has built over the last four years.
Her second mistake was that she confused a settlement freeze with the future of the settlements. According to the Oslo agreements, negotiations should deal with the fate of settlements. The expansion of settlements was not a final status negotiating issue. There is a logical contradiction between negotiating an end to the occupation on the one hand and continuing settlement construction, which consolidates that occupation, on the other.
This is not the first time Israeli settlement expansion activities threaten the future of the peace process. A thorough study of the history of the peace process reveals that the insistence of Israel to continue jeopardizing and pre-empting negotiations by unilaterally and forcibly creating facts on the ground that are consistent only with Israel's vision of the future and contradictory to the Palestinian vision has always been a major cause of crisis during the different phases of the peace process. At the same time, it has been a cause of tension and radicalization in Palestinian society.
Abbas and, before him Yasser Arafat, agreed to negotiate while settlement construction continued only in the hope that it would thereby stop. The fact that it didn't is the reason why Palestinians will no longer agree to negotiate under such circumstances. The other reason is that the Obama administration closely followed the sequence of the roadmap and agreed that settlement construction should stop in preparation for negotiations. It makes little sense for the Palestinian position to have a lower ceiling than that of the US administration.
Many Palestinian analysts, in looking at Abbas' speech, considered it a denouncement of the US mediation approach. This may provide the international community with an opportunity to revise that approach, which has been unfairly exploiting the imbalance of power and the weakness of the Palestinian side.
It might be an opportunity to bring to an end the ongoing paradigm that assumes that ending the occupation and establishing a state can only be achieved through agreement, thereby giving Israel the power to determine whether this will happen or not and how. A new paradigm might see the international community, rather than the occupying power, take on an active role to end the occupation in order to grant Palestinians their rights to freedom, self-determination and statehood.- Published 9/11/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
From settlement freeze to baby steps
by Yossi Alpher
The Obama administration tried to jump start the Israel-Arab peace process and inject new energy into additional areas of US activity in the Middle East by instituting a settlement freeze in the West Bank. Regardless of the words Obama's people have chosen to soften the impact, this initiative has failed. The immediate fallout is the apparent resignation of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and an inability to get final status negotiations moving again.
This drama is unraveling against an extremely complicated backdrop of variable factors that makes it difficult to assess not only where we might be going, but even where we are today. Most of the question marks are on the Palestinian side.
We don't know whether Palestinian elections will really be held on January 24. If they are, we don't know who will run. If they aren't, Abu Mazen may remain Palestinian president indefinitely. We don't know whether Hamas will yield to the January 24 ultimatum and sign on to Egypt's proposed Palestinian unity framework, thereby postponing elections (and leaving Abu Mazen in office) until June--if indeed Fateh and Hamas can successfully negotiate all the modalities of the unity framework by then. We don't know whether and under what leadership the Palestinians might, as indicated by various press leaks, seek to obtain international recognition of their statehood aspirations and create a dramatic new fait accompli.
In stark contrast, we cannot be certain that Abu Mazen's departure, coupled with the absence of final status negotiations, won't lead to the outbreak of a new intifada that radically reduces the likelihood of any political process. Nor do we know whether Hamas will, failing a unity agreement, sit quietly by or fall back on violence of its own to sabotage West Bank elections, the selection of a new Palestinian leader or, for that matter, renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
On the Israeli side, there are two significant unknowns to factor into our assessment. We don't know whether PM Binyamin Netanyahu has embraced the two-state solution merely as a tactic to deflate American pressure, or has truly understood the vital need to create a viable Palestinian state in order for Israel to survive as a Jewish state. In other words, we don't know whether he would take a peace process, if and when we get there, seriously. And we don't know how heavily Abu Mazen's threat of departure weighs on Netanyahu; my guess is that Netanyahu himself, who lives politically from day to day, doesn't really know either.
Then there is the American side. Did the Obama administration really think that "engagement" would be sufficient to generate a settlement freeze? Did it really believe a settlement freeze would be sufficient to create a successful peace process? Having failed, will it now radically revise its approach? Secretary of State Hillary Clintons' announcement (after the embarrassment of welcoming Netanyahu's settlement freeze feints as "unprecedented") that "baby steps" would now be invoked does indeed look like a radical revision--a kind of bottom-up approach that seemingly dovetails nicely with both Netanyahu's "economic peace" and PA PM Salam Fayyad's "two-year state-building" program. But this is hardly sufficient to satisfy Palestinian and other Arab political aspirations, and it is not likely to persuade Abu Mazen to remain in office.
If Washington now has something more dramatic in mind, such as a move to create a Palestinian state unilaterally within the 1967 borders, we may soon find out. If such a new initiative is handled as ineptly as the settlement freeze, Netanyahu has a lot less to worry about than Abbas.
This brings us to the crux of the interaction among Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah over the settlement freeze. Netanyahu's success in deflating the settlement freeze demand and Abu Mazen's threat to resign over it reflect a far more astute understanding of the Washington scene and how to manipulate it by Netanyahu than on the part of the Ramallah leadership.
This is hardly the first time the Palestinians have been outfoxed by Israel in Washington. Yet they still don't get it. They still don't understand that in an era of Arab disarray and impotence, and particularly when confronted by a less than coherent new American policy departure, their smartest strategists should be traveling to Washington, not (with all due respect) to Cairo, Amman and Riyadh.
The real lesson of the settlement freeze fiasco concerns who understands Washington better, Netanyahu or Abu Mazen.- Published 9/11/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Credit where it's due
by Joharah Baker
With all the talk about Palestinian elections, President Mahmoud Abbas refusing to run and a possible unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, one thing remains constant--the undeterred growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Unfortunately, it is these settlements that will render all of the above completely irrelevant if they are not stopped and dismantled in line with what they are: illegal.
This is basically the point the Palestinians, including President Abbas have been trying to make. Well-versed in "Netanyahu-isms" that mostly reveal the Israeli prime minister's lack of any serious commitment to Palestinian national rights and his undisturbed conscience when it comes to the ongoing expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, Abbas, with a little help from US President Barack Obama decided that at least this was one shot he could call--no bilateral negotiations with Israel until settlement construction is frozen.
As it stands, this is hardly an unreasonable demand. Jewish settlements, which have never ceased to spread since Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, are illegal and illegitimate under international law. Still, they have slowly but surely engulfed Jerusalem and have devoured large swathes of West Bank land that should become part of any future Palestinian state. Abbas knows, as every Palestinian knows, that for a two-state solution to ever have a chance of becoming a reality, settlement construction must be halted.
President Obama seemed to have understood this as well when he dove head first into the conflict immediately after taking office. Some may say his call on Israel to freeze settlement construction was naive, especially given the right-wing Israeli government in power. Still, for Palestinians it constituted a ray of hope, a sliver of optimism that this US administration could perhaps find the gumption to force Israel's hand like no other has done. The Palestinian leadership realized this was also its chance to do what it had not done much of before--put its foot down and pressure Israel on what's really important.
The good intentions, however, have gone southward. Unlike the Palestinians, Israel was not impressed by Obama's enthusiasm, nor was it going to kowtow to the new kid on the block. Not only did Israel not freeze settlements, even temporarily, it approved the completion of 2,500 units already "under construction" and an additional 450 new homes. East Jerusalem was from the outset deemed out of the question as far as settlement activity was concerned; Israel considers it part of its territory even though under international law it is occupied. Netanyahu's impudence put the Americans in a rather uncomfortable situation, with US envoy George Mitchell shuttling back and forth repeatedly and US officials tiptoeing around Israel so as not to torpedo so-called peace efforts. This, at least, was the excuse the US gave for shunning the Goldstone report, for example, which it derided at just about every turn.
The final straw and possibly one of the reasons why Abbas has decided not to run for a second term in any upcoming Palestinian elections, was the apparent retraction by Washington of its position on settlements. On October 31, during US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's last trip to the region, she hailed Binyamin Netanyahu's efforts on settlements as "unprecedented". While she did say the US is not exactly pleased with Israel's settlement policy, she also did not see it as a reason to halt the negotiating process. Clinton also seemed to share Netanyahu's opinion that it was the Palestinians who had changed the rules of the game. Historically, the Palestinian leadership has sat down with the Israelis even while settlements continued to expand, so why the change of heart now?
Well, for one, the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem is now a quarter of a million. That is a significant number in comparison to the approximately 2.5 million Palestinians in the same space. These settlers not only live on occupied land, their homes are effectively preventing any geographical contiguity between Palestinian areas.
Besides, in all fairness to the Palestinian leadership, even when its negotiators were sitting at the table with their Israeli counterparts, it was on the premise that the agreements signed between them were conditioned on a settlement freeze. The fact that Israel breached this stipulation throughout the years of negotiations is just one more reason why it makes sense that Palestinians would insist on this condition today. They tried negotiations while settlements expanded. That obviously didn't work. It is time for a change of tactics.
Anyway, with a man like Netanyahu at the helm of Israeli government, there's not much to be expected in terms of advancing a just peace. He is not a man who minces his words. His big concession where the Palestinians are concerned was agreeing to a demilitarized Palestinian entity on parts of the West Bank with no Jerusalem, no return of refugees and no dismantlement of major settlement blocs. His "unprecedented" move on settlements was, in his own words, a consideration to "temporarily scale down" construction.
Abbas has no doubt given the Palestinians enough for which to criticize him. However, when it comes to his adamancy in not returning to the negotiating table without a freeze on settlement construction, we should give credit where credit is due.- Published 9/11/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Joharah Baker is a writer for the Media and Information Department at MIFTAH and a former editor of Palestine Report Online.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The deep freeze
by Amnon Lord
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' resignation only confirmed that the peace process" is frozen; instead of a settlement construction freeze, we got the freezing of negotiations. Abbas' departure reflects US President Barack Obama's failure--not to put heavy pressure on Israel, but rather the other way around: the pressure on Israel created the dynamics that led ultimately to the deep freeze.
It was only natural that Abbas didn't want to return to the negotiating table. He reached a certain point in the last round with the heads of the former Israeli government, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, and he wanted to continue from that point where the two sides left off. This is the nature and dynamics of negotiations. As an alternative, he was willing to forego that condition and sit down to negotiate under a new one: a freeze on settlement construction. Here he was in agreement with Obama, who told Abbas in his first visit to the White House that the Israeli prime minister had heard things there that no Israeli had heard before: demands on Israel first, and the pressure shifting from the Palestinians to Israel.
Abbas of course could not demand less than the American president. But instead of a settlement freeze we got a negotiations freeze. This issue has been the subject of much discussion in the US media since the summer, with the conclusion that Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton were mistaken to take that course of action.
Israel and the Palestinians actually invented a new genre of political negotiation. Usually, a leadership that decides to sit down at the negotiating table, for better or for worse, cannot get up and leave the table--even if it's very sovereignty becomes a negotiable issue. But with the advent of this new genre, a democratic country can afford and has the ability to leave the table, so to speak.
This might happen when there is a change of government. This is what actually happened with the results of the last Israeli elections. The Israeli public rejected the entire strategy of negotiating a final settlement accord with a leadership that doesn't look like it can be an equal partner with the ability to deliver on that agreement. There is no need to elaborate on this point because it has been discussed endlessly: the Netanyahu government represents an Israeli impulse to have peace and offer considerable compromises to that end, but that same impulse rejects the peace process.
The "peace process" does not lead to peace; rather, it is a strategic and political scheme. I heard a European diplomat on a sabbatical compare it to the process of creating NATO in the early 1950s. The idea was to keep the Americans in, to keep the Russians out and to keep the Germans down. Israel in the peace process scheme is dealt with for the purpose of keeping it down. Keep Israel down--that's the conceptual idea.
This dynamic has generated a contrary idea, developed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, of developing an independent Israeli policy. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are in agreement. This is Netanyahu's "economic peace". Israel is gradually adjusting itself to the notion that it is an independent economic power with great aspirations for the next decade, as was expressed by the prime minister's speech at the President's Conference in Jerusalem two weeks ago. I believe Netanyahu's concept is that Israeli economic empowerment will create a derivative in the form of new political ideas to rearrange the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians into one of coexistence.
As a backdrop to this Israeli development, there are ominous developments on the international arena that mount considerable additional obstacles on the road back to negotiations. Because of Obama's withdrawal of the American presidency into the role of "transactional" leadership, as a source close to the White house defined it, various sardines have been inflated internationally into sharks: Sweden, Libya, Cuba. Together with Judge Richard Goldstone they are able to rock the Middle East boat. Turkey can afford suddenly to show itself in full dress on the boulevard holding hands with Iran.
A huge storm of anti-Israel revanchism is building up. This does not look like a road to peace; it looks like the continuation of war by other means. The United Nations has become a tool against peace, not least because of the feeble leadership of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has stood passively by as the Iranian-Venezuelan-Russian-Islamist coalition in the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly have kidnapped this supposed major international facilitator of peace.
So the environment does not look good for getting back to negotiations. Still, if there is an understanding that the borders are the only issue that can be negotiated, then I think Abbas or his successor could find a willing partner in Netanyahu, who is more reliable than his predecessor. The platform that could get things moving is Netanyahu's principle of defensible borders. It leaves much territory for negotiations, provided that in the meantime the sides avoid the issues of the Temple Mount, refugees and the "Jewish state".- Published 9/11/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Amnon Lord is a senior editor and columnist with Makor Rishon newspaper.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.