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    December 14, 2009 Edition 45                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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The Israeli settlement construction freeze
. The ball is now with the international community        by Ghassan Khatib
With the settlement issue a focus of debate in Israel, international prodding can be extremely helpful.
  . Dealing with Mr. Yes and No        by Yossi Alpher
Abbas should acknowledge the freeze as the response he needed to enter negotiations and put Netanyahu on the spot.
. The moment of truth        by Issa Samander
Move the settlers back to Israel. Let them behave there the way they behave in occupied territory.
  . Rupture and its rewards        by Yisrael Harel
The settlers cannot accept this situation.

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The ball is now with the international community
by Ghassan Khatib

Binyamin Netanyahu's announcement in late November that his government would implement a settlement freeze was not taken seriously by Palestinians, Arabs or other interested and involved parties.

Palestinians warned that the announcement amounted to no more than a public relations gimmick aimed at reducing growing international criticism of Israel's settlement expansion policies. Palestinian officials made clear that the Israeli "freeze" did not signal any change to Israeli settlement expansion, which is responsible for preventing the resumption of negotiations.

It should be obvious why. The "freeze" excludes occupied East Jerusalem and environs, a total of 22 percent of the West Bank and the focus of most settlement activity anyway. It also excludes some 3,000 housing units already approved and construction projects for public buildings--anything from synagogues to kindergartens. Indeed, Israeli settlement watchers and analysts are on record as saying that this "freeze" will in fact allow Israel to maintain the same level of annual settlement expansion as over the last four years.

Nevertheless, the Israeli government didn't stop there. As Israeli settlers took to the streets and prevented government officials from serving the freeze orders--while stepping up their attacks on Palestinians and their property, including an arson attack on a West Bank mosque--the Israeli government decided that it would try to appease settlers some more. With its new "national priority map", Israel is now offering even greater economic incentives and subsidies to settlers. This clearly underlines that settlements are a priority over peace to this Israeli government. It also explains why population growth in settlements is higher than in Israel.

On the Palestinian side there is a consistent and firm insistence that settlement expansion is incompatible with the peace process. Both President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are clear that constructive negotiations will only take place if there is a complete freeze on settlement construction as well as clear terms of reference for the talks.

It is the position of the international community that can make a difference here. Clear messages need to be sent to Israel. At this point, with the settlement issue a focus of debate in Israel, international prodding can be extremely helpful. The December 8 European Union statement is an important example. The EU made very clear that it "would not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including with regards to Jerusalem" and that "settlements [and] the separation barrier, built on occupied land, the demolition of homes and evictions, are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible."

Another example came from Britain, where authorities are now expecting products from Israel to be clearly labeled to indicate when some originate in settlements. While this stops short of outlawing such products, it nevertheless indicates their illegality and constitutes a kind of economic sanction.

Such statements and actions can make a difference to Israel and in Israel. Israeli public opinion, which perceives itself as part of the western world, understands the level of Israeli dependence on western support, whether for its military or economic superiority and is usually sensitive to serious messages from the West. And while Europe is not exactly the United States, Israelis may realize that Europe would not have come up with its statement--which would require consensus from every one of the EU's 27 member states--if the US administration had wanted to prevent it. The same can also be concluded from the relatively mute reaction in Washington to the EU statement.

For now, the near future will witness an increase in settler violence against Palestinians and the continued failure of Israel to comply with its obligations under the roadmap, particularly vis-a-vis settlements, at a time when the Palestinian side is showing an impressive commitment to fulfilling its obligations. This is the situation that anyone trying to help end the conflict and maintain stability in the region will have to grapple with.- Published 14/12/2009 © 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.

Dealing with Mr. Yes and No
by Yossi Alpher

Back in the days of Binyamin Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, more than ten years ago, he was satirized as Mr. Yes and No. For every "yes" he delivered to US President Bill Clinton or PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, there was also a "no" or, if you like, a "yes" to the settlers and other opponents of the peace process. That appears to be where we are today, once again.

The ten-month settlement freeze was a "yes", primarily to President Barack Obama, and a dramatic "no" to the settlers. For a change, a genuine attempt is apparently being made to enforce this prohibition, too. But the "no" to a peace process--indeed, to the very concept of a two-state solution--was quick to come, in the form of Netanyahu's proposal to award "area A" development status, with its concomitant financial benefits, to outlying and provocatively-located settlements like Yitzhar and Tapuach.

Thus does Mr. Yes and No seek to placate the parties who are pressuring him. Obama and the international community want peace gestures; so does Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the rag-tag remnants of his Labor party. Hence the freeze. The settlers want to continue expanding, if possible with government support. Hence the development money. Interestingly, Netanyahu does not appear to perceive significant pressure on the part of the PLO, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab world in general, hence he can afford for now to keep his zigzag two-dimensional.

Which pressures are likely to prevail? The settlers' strategy is much easier to figure out than Obama's. The American president appears to be increasingly preoccupied with Afghanistan and disillusioned with the Arab-Israel peace process and with the vagaries of both Palestinian and Israeli politics. How much more effective pressure he can direct toward Netanyahu or PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas is questionable.

The settlers, on the other hand, are responding to the construction freeze with their usual energy, faith-based dynamism and organizational capability. They appear to have developed a combination of two integrated strategic concepts.

First is preemption and prevention: the settlers fear that the freeze--which, after all, is only for ten months and does not affect 3,000 current construction projects, construction in East Jerusalem or public buildings--is really the beginning of the end for the West Bank settlement enterprise. They regret not having fought harder against the Gaza pullout in 2005. They see a dangerous pattern here. They are determined to render the freeze unenforceable so there can be no follow-up.

Second is defense and intimidation. The settlers are witness to a right-wing government caving in to American peace pressures and turning against them. They want to set it back on the course they originally prescribed for it: enabling them to expand their grip on the West Bank.

The most dangerous provocation against the freeze carried out thus far by settlers is setting fire to a mosque in a village near Nablus. While the Netanyahu government has condemned this act and will hunt down the perpetrators, it does not seem to understand that under current circumstances, every financial concession it makes to the settlers, every compromise it offers an extremist West Bank rabbi calling upon IDF soldiers to mutiny, merely encourages such acts of extremism.

Here the government really is playing with fire. A violent Palestinian response to the mosque-burning could begin to unravel all the security, economic and institution-building progress registered over recent months by the Salam Fayyad government, thereby negating the very purpose of the settlement construction freeze.

We have already noted the relative absence of Arab, especially Palestinian, pressures as apparently perceived by Netanyahu. The most effective and constructive pressure that Abbas could possibly exercise right now is to acknowledge the settlement freeze, problematic and inadequate as it is, as the response he needed in order to enter into immediate and accelerated peace negotiations. He would have the backing of the Obama administration and most of the Israeli public. He would really put Mr. Yes and No on the spot.- Published 14/12/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The moment of truth

by Issa Samander

The US administration was very quick to announce its appreciation of the Israeli right-wing government's decision to temporarily and partially halt settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territories. In doing so, Washington has only shown its weakness. If the US cannot convince Israel even to properly freeze settlement construction in occupied territory, then how will it convince Israel to dismantle settlements? And if that doesn't happen, what then for the two-state solution?

One wonders how many lessons and how much more violence is needed before the US administration understands that its credibility is directly connected to the actual steps that accompany American officials' statements about Palestinian rights to independence and freedom. Palestinians have learned their lesson: US statements are just words, public relations exercises that have nothing to do with achieving peace here and in the region.

I work with land and housing rights but I am just an ordinary Palestinian. As such, I find it incongruous that almost all countries in the world, the UN, Amnesty International, the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, even Israeli human rights organizations agree that settlements are a major obstacle to peace and the two-state solution, yet these colonies continue to expand and spread. The United Nations, and with it the entire community of nations, has clearly denounced settlements as illegal. Practically, years of negotiations have foundered on their existence.

President Mahmoud Abbas has been working against the odds. He put all his eggs in the basket of negotiations. That, he told us, was the only sure way to achieve our rights and the only way the US would help. Toward this end, he has worked diligently and seriously. Yet he secured not even a single "good will" gesture from the Israeli government, not even on so-called settlement outposts, settlements illegal even under Israeli law. And from the Americans: only their appreciation of Israel's settlement construction "freeze".

And what is this freeze? It is a temporary, 10-month construction halt for private housing units not already approved in some parts of the occupied territory. East Jerusalem is exempted, as are 3,000 housing units already approved and buildings "necessary for normal life", from synagogues to kindergartens. It is, in other words, not a freeze at all.

And these exceptions are granted to appease settlers, people who have repeatedly engaged in outrageous behavior toward Palestinians and their properties, burning their fields, cutting their olive trees, stealing agricultural products and, as late as last week, burning down a mosque and painting fascist slogans on its floor. Settlers and their presence on occupied territory are the fuel for the coming fire. They have become greedier, these settlers, and even as they object to their government's policy, they know as well as Palestinians do that there is no freeze and that, on the contrary, we will witness another huge wave of construction. After all, who will count the 3,000 units? Who will determine what is necessary for "normal life"? And whose normal life matters here?

This is the moment of truth for the American administration. This is the time when sides are chosen. This is when Washington needs to make absolutely clear that all settlement construction in all occupied territory needs to end, that settlement outposts need to be dismantled, that Israel needs to abide by the agreements it itself has signed. No Palestinian will be convinced by anything less. Words have no meaning any more. Not until the bulldozers stop working on our land, either to build their houses or tear down ours, will Palestinians have any confidence in the many political opportunists that litter our landscape. No smile will be broad enough or handshake sincere enough if it is not accompanied by real change. No negotiations can be trusted or invested with any faith in the absence of demonstrable progress.

Move the settlers back to Israel. Let them behave there the way they behave in occupied territory. Let Israelis know what they have unleashed on us. And don't be fooled by the recent quiet. Palestinians have nothing left to lose. Let us hope that the US gathers its courage and strength and begins to truly work for peace- Published 14/12/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Issa Samander is coordinator with the Land Defense General Committees, a grassroots organization that helps Palestinian farmers appeal land confiscations.

Rupture and its rewards

by Yisrael Harel

The settlement construction freeze imposed by the government in Judea and Samaria has far-reaching practical, political and ideological ramifications.

Beginning with the practical: despite domestic and international political pressures against the settlements that inevitably generate heavy doubts among prospective settlers, demand for homes in these settlements is great, particularly among the second and third generations of settlers. If we add the security and economic price the settlers in any case pay (financial rewards under the government's "areas of national priority" are a joke in view of the settlers' heavy expenses incurred by their location), we find that the settlement movement is deeply rooted among the Israeli people. There is a strong desire to strengthen that movement so that it cannot again be uprooted like the small Katif enclave in Gaza in 2005.

Thus, if only to continue to exist, i.e., to prevent another Katif bloc uprooting, the settlers understand that they must bring tens of thousands of new people to the settlements. But that cannot happen without ongoing construction.

Further, even if, in view of the lessons of Katif, no government is able to remove settlers (there are 300,000 in Judea and Samaria in contrast with some 10,000 in Katif in 2005), they face an additional existential threat: atrophy. Many of the veteran settlements are over 30. Without housing there, the second and third generations will be obliged to live elsewhere and the original settlement is liable to age and eventually disappear. Thus, another reason for the struggle against the freeze is the need to bring fresh blood to the veins of these settlements.

There is also a profound ideological reason. When the government issues construction freeze directives targeting only Judea and Samaria--something it would not dream of doing anywhere else--this sends a disturbing emotional and ideological message to the settlers. They view their communities as an integral part of the state of Israel; they settled where they did so that these territories would become part of the state.

Then too, the freeze communicates a strong sense of insult: what leftist or otherwise hostile governments like that of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert (which carried out the Gaza removal, then followed up with unprecedented and brutal force against the youth of Amona) never dreamed of doing is now being implemented by a Likud government for which many of the settlers themselves voted. This, incidentally, explains why in some places, especially secular settlements identified with the Likud, officials sent to enforce the construction freeze encountered a more violent response than in "ideological" settlements.

PM Binyamin Netanyahu is perceived by settlers and others as a weak figure who succumbs to whoever pressures hardest. The settlers are correct in calculating that their tough response to the freeze, which the media exaggerates in order to prove the settlers are violent, will generate antagonism to the freeze among Likud voters and supporters of other parties in the coalition (including not a few Laborites), thereby obliging Netanyahu to back off. Indeed, the ministerial committee appointed to mollify the settlers and deal with exceptional construction cases has already permitted the renewal of construction of hundreds of dwellings.

Netanyahu's inclination to fold under pressure generates yet another concern. Nothing will change in the Obama administration's approach ten months from now. There will be more pressure, followed by further freezes. And since there will be no new construction starts during the coming ten months, there can be no second ministerial committee for exceptions. Thus as long as Obama is president, there will be no housing construction in Judea and Samaria despite Netanyahu's reassurances that this is the last and only freeze.

The settlers, of course, cannot accept this situation. They have ways to melt much of the freeze, at least from the standpoint of political consciousness. Conceivably, with the right approach, they can even transform the freeze into a lever for generating greater momentum of construction than before, while in parallel recruiting more volunteers to strengthen the settler movement.

Prior to the uprooting from Katif, a kind of referendum was held among Likud party members. PM Ariel Sharon dreamed up the idea and promised that if the majority was against him there would be no withdrawal. He made this commitment with a clear head, knowing that all opinion polls had predicted he would triumph. The settlers, not only those from the Katif bloc, visited Likudniks house by house to persuade them that because Hamas would view the withdrawal as its victory, the Qassam rockets then falling mainly on settlements would, after the withdrawal, fall on the western Negev. These encounters were so effective that Sharon's victory predictions were overturned. He proceeded to violate his promise and implement the withdrawal anyway, even as he was creating a new party.

But the lesson was learned. Netanyahu is not Sharon and the Likud ministers in his government did not accompany Sharon to Kadima and will not allow Netanyahu to repeat that totally undemocratic exercise.

Conceivably, the fathers of this construction freeze--and not only in Washington--concluded that another mass uprooting of settlements is impossible, hence the solution is to atrophy them until they collapse on their own. If there is a significant and extended freeze, this could eventually happen. If indeed this is the strategy, the settlers will know in nine or ten months. If the freeze is extended, they can again begin visiting the homes of Likud Central Committee members to confront them with what is already being called "Netanyahu's betrayal". And considering that no Israeli government in the past two decades survived its full four-year term and elections are held every two or three years, Netanyahu does not have the luxury of losing the confidence of his voters.

Thus it appears that even at the cost of tension with the United States, and probably sooner rather than later, the freeze will fail--like every previous American effort to pressure Israeli governments, right and left, to restrict settlers' lives.- Published 14/12/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Yisrael Harel heads the Institute for Zionist Strategy in Jerusalem and writes a weekly political column in Haaretz. He founded the Yesha Council (Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District) and headed it for 15 years.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

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.