Israel authorizes settlement increase — before agreeing to temporary freeze?

Eight months after Barack Obama was sworn into office last January (and made his first phone call to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — urging him to resume negotiations that Palestinians cut off when Israel launched a massive military assault on Gaza on 27 December), the Israeli government has thrown down the gauntlet and defied the Obama Administration’s cautionary advice against continued settlement activity.

In a direct challenge to American efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the Israeli Defense Minister — who apparently rules the occupied West Bank — has just authorized construction of some 455 new Jewish homes there.

There are Israeli suggestions that this will be followed later this week by a U.S-Israeli agreement on a temporary settlement freeze.

But would the current United States administration, led by Barack Obama, really be so willing to go along with this?

Today is the Labor Day holiday that marks the end of summer in the USA. Obama is making a big speech, and is embroiled in a controversy about health care. George Mitchell is due in the region later this week. So, the reaction appears to be muted, at least for the moment.

But, the Israeli move on settlements shows that U.S. diplomacy is not overwhelmingly effective at the moment.

“I’m afraid that Barack Obama will be the eighth consecutive U.S. President … who will fail in his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, or even to improve the situation here”, said Daniel Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, an organization of Israeli settlers living in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. Dayan was speaking at a briefing in Jerusalem today for members of the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Israel,

Three days ago, the White House press secretary issued the following statement: “We regret the reports of Israel’s plans to approve additional settlement construction. Continued settlement activity is inconsistent with Israel’s commitment under the Roadmap. As the President has said before, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop. We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate. We do appreciate Israel’s stated intent to place limits on settlement activity and will continue to discuss this with the Israelis as these limitations are defined. The U.S. commitment to Israel’s security is and will remain unshakeable. We believe it can best be achieved through comprehensive peace in the region, including a two-state solution with a Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel. That is the ultimate goal to which the President is deeply and personally committed. Our objective remains to resume meaningful negotiations as soon as possible in pursuit of this goal. We are working with all parties – Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab states — on the steps they must take to achieve that objective”. This statement is posted on the White House website, here.

Haaretz reported at the time this statement was issued that “In response to a reporter’s question, the White House spokesman said that the U.S. had been informed of Netanyahu’s intention to proceed with new construction in the West Bank … one U.S. official familiar with Mitchell’s meeting last week in New York with Netanyahu envoy Yitzhak Molcho said the Israelis ‘told Mitchell they were going to [continue construction] and he told them they could expect a sharp response’.” This can be read in full here.

Now, according to a report in Haaretz today, Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak has “signed some of the permits needed to construct 500 new houses in West Bank settlements on Sunday night, and is slated to sign the remainder on Monday morning. The new housing, which was decided on by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will be built in six settlements, all of which are included in the settlement blocs that Israel wants to keep under any peace agreement. The settlements in question include Har Gilo, Modi’in Ilit and Ariel. An Israeli diplomatic source told Haaretz Monday that U.S. Mideast Envoy George Mitchell and the Obama administration have been updated on the new housing permits. The same source also said that the new permits were approved with the understanding that in return, Israel will enact a freeze on other settlement projects. The construction permits will take effect before the building freeze that Israel is now negotiating with the United States goes into force. But even during this freeze, work will continue on some 2,500 apartments that are currently under construction”.

The Jerusalem Post reported that” The Gush Etzion settlement of Har Gilo, which is just south of Jerusalem [n.b. – and just outside of Bethlehem, on the land of Beit Jala and the etherially beautiful Wallajee], will receive a major boost to its population with 149 units winning the ministry’s approval. Ma’aleh Adumim received a boost of 89 new units. The haredi city of Modi’in Illit will see an additional 84 units, the Agan Ha’ayalot neighborhood of Givat Ze’ev is to grow by 76 units, and the small settlement Kedar, which is near Ma’aleh Adumim, has received Barak’s okay for 25 new units. The defense minister also approved 20 units in Maskiot in the Jordan Valley, and 12 additional units in the veteran Gush Etzion settlement Alon Shvut. Barak also approved the construction of a sports park in Ariel, the statement continued, and a plan for a new school in Har Adar is currently in the works. This approval comes prior to the government’s expected declaration of a settlement moratorium, part of a package the US administration is trying to put together to relaunch the diplomatic process”. This Post report can be read in full here.

YNet reported that “Yesha Council Director General Pinchas Wallerstein said to Ynet, ‘In actuality, the defense minister isn’t authorizing even one house or one new contract, and isn’t issuing one new tender … These aren’t new tenders or building permits (being issued), but the completion of permits and documents granted in the past’, explained Wallerstein”. This YNet report can be read in full here.

But, in his press conference today, Daniel Dayan said that he believes “There is no legal way for Barak to freeze construction in the settlements … most of the homes or apartments are already bought by people who took mortgages and began building…There is no way to stop the construction … [the late Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin did freeze ongoing construction in the settlements at one point, but at that time the construction was governmental. Now, it is private, so there is no way to freeze it”.
The same argument does not seem to apply to Palestinian construction or to Palestinian property, however.

U.S. President Barak Obama has said that Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank should stop, and his Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton has been even firmer, denying that officials working for the former U.S. President George W. Bush had agreed to any unwritten or informal understanding on allowing “natural growth” in the Israeli settlements — but these denials have not been repeated recently, at least not in public, or out loud.

Bush more or less promised, when he and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice launched the Annapolis process of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in November 2007, with just over a year left in office, that he intended to see the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008 (or at the latest by Bush’s last day in office in January 2009).

The year wound down with no visible progress — though there were rumors of a final proposal made by embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (who has just recently been indicted on pending corruption charges that obliged his resignation and early elections that brought Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power at the head of a massively right-wing and pro-settlement coalition government ).

Palestinian officials have said they would not return to peace talks without an Israeli commitment to a two-state solution (Netanyahu has made a vague gesture in that direction that has perhaps wrongly been construed as such a committment), as well as a complete end to Israel settlement activities throughout the West Bank, including East Jerusalem [Netanyahu appears to have just blown up that possibility].

Palestinian Negotiator, Dr Saeb Erakat, head of the Negotiations Support Unit of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as well as a newly-elected member of the Fatah Central Committee and of the PLO Executive Committee, issued a statement today saying that “Israel’s decision to approve over 450 new settlement units for construction in the West Bank, including in and around East Jerusalem, is a direct challenge to US and international efforts to restart negotiations. Israel’s decision to approve the construction of over 450 new settlement units nullifies any affect that a settlement freeze, when and if announced, will have. It further undermines faith in the peace process, and the belief that Israel is a credible partner for peace … Israel has introduced another loophole, one that exemplifies the enormous disconnect between rhetoric and reality that Israel has perfected in its dealings with Palestinians, the international community and the peace process. Should the Israeli government eventually decide to announce its version of a ‘settlement freeze’, what Palestinians will continue to see is the ongoing construction of Israeli settlements on their land, and the disappearance of their future state … This decision to approve the construction of over 450 new settlement units poses a particularly serious challenge to the international community, who for the past eight months, have unambiguously stated that both sides must meet their obligations under existing agreements and international law to create the environment for meaningful negotiations to resume. Rather than meet its Road Map obligations, Israel has spent the past eight months trying to renegotiate the Road Map, including exemptions on a settlement freeze. It is now trying to unilaterally redefine a settlement freeze in a way that facilitates rather than stops future settlement construction. The construction of over 450 new settlement units is designed to further consolidate Israel’s colonization of the occupied Palestinian territory. For ordinary Palestinians, that means continued forced displacement and the loss of their land, more movement restrictions and greater economic stagnation, the severance of occupied East Jerusalem, the economic and political heart of Palestine, from the rest of the West Bank, and the daily violence, humiliation and injustice of life under occupation. This is not a step towards peace. It is a step back from peace”.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party, which got one more seat in Israel general elections in February, but who was not asked to form a new government because of she lacked Netanyahu’s broad support with the Israeli nationalist and religious right, said today that “her government had succeeded in holding negotiations with the Palestinians by showing the world Israel wanted to achieve an accord, while the construction in large settlements continued. ‘But currently in order to enter into negotiations you have to pay the Right and the Americans with slips, as well as cheat the coalition partnership’,”the former foreign minister said. Livni disputed Netanyahu’s credibility and said he was only interested in ‘buying time’. ‘I don’t buy Bibi’s honesty’, she said, adding that he had to decide before negotiations began ‘whether we’re building or freezing … I would support a proper process’, she added … [but] ‘As of now, the (government’s) conduct is very problematic, and testifies to the fact that no process or path have been chosen’.” Livni’s remarks can be read in full on the YNet website here.

A week ago, at a regular meeting of the Israeli cabinet on 30 August, Netanyahu said he was worried about taking care of “the minimal existential needs of the settler public”. The Cabinet Communique reported that Netanyahu said: “On the diplomatic issue, my meeting [in Europe] with [former Senator] Mitchell, contrary to the rumors, stories and reports that I am not responsible for, but I am responsible for what I am telling you now, there are no agreements or decisions; there is an attempt to bridge between the two goals that we would like to hold to and maintain simultaneously: The first is to launch a peace process, a diplomatic process between us and the Palestinians that will – of course – also include the Arab countries. The second has to do with our desire to see to the minimal existential needs of the settler public. As to this, there are all sorts of attempts to reach an understanding and reduce gaps but we are not there yet.”

Earlier this week, a comment in Haaretz written by Raphael Israeli, professor of Islamic, Middle Eastern and Chinese history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argued that settlement activity might actually advance the peace process: “We know now that one thing that motivated Anwar Sadat to come to Jerusalem was his fear that unless settlements in the Rafah area and Sinai were uprooted, they would grow into large cities that no peace agreement could remove … So until there is a permanent status agreement, only Jewish settlement activity can be enough of an incentive to make the Arabs, like Sadat, hurry up and seek peace, because their losses will multiply the longer they wait. We know from the Gaza example that the Arabs’ goal was not to remove Israel from precious land, but to uproot Jews and fight them from the land they left. It is better, then, to keep with the peace-building construction in communities beyond our borders, and only when we see genuine signs of a culture of peace and good neighborliness next door to talk about evacuation – with due consideration to the new reality on the ground, which will change all the more if the Arabs don’t rush toward an agreement”. This OpEd piece can be read in full here.

But, in his remarks to international journalists in Jerusalem today, Daniel Dayan said that there are “threats all over the world and all the world international community is interested with is whether my daughter builds her house next to mine … It is all based on the erroneous perception that the creation of a Palestinian state is the magical solution to the situation here.”

Dayan, who lives with 200 other families in the northern West Bank settlement of Maale Shomron, said that U.S. President Obamba “got trapped in the same political illusion as all his predecessors, believing that the way to bring peace to this area is the withdrawal of Israel from Judea and Samaria [i.e. the occupied West Bank], and the establishment of a Palestinian state in those areas … [But] There is a strong correlation between efforts to bring peace, and chaos in the Middle East. You are used to thinking there is only one game in town, and that is the establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria — but I think the international community is totally wrong”.

If there were to be a Palestinian state, Dayan said, “I know for sure what will happen to Jews — we will be in constant fear of annihilation, which will not happen to Palestinians if there is not a Palestinian state”.

He said that “the only reason Hamas does not rule Judea and Samaria [i.e. the occupied West Bank] is the presence of the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces], and the 305,000 Jewish settlers who live there … [while] an independent Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria will be ruled by a majority of Palestinians — namely Hamas, and no peace will prevail”.

“One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to deny a reality”, Dayan said, “and for the forseeable future there is no final status solution for the Middle East. The international community does not have one [a final status solution], but they deny it. The moment they stop denying the fact that there is not that there is not a final status solution, then the whole world will turn its efforts to manage the solution, and will begin providing security for all of us — Jews and Palestinians. The precondition is that the whole security should be in Israeli hands”.

Actually, this is the situation that exists today.

But, while the Palestinian opposition talks increasingly of a one-state solution (by which they seem to mean a near-idyllic situation similar to the one that existed before the Palestinian Authority was established in the mid-1990s following the Oslo Accords), the Israeli idea of a one-state solution is very different, and would involve all the security control that exists today in the West Bank, including checkpoints — but extended within Israel proper, including around Tel Aviv, and in the Golan Heights as well.

In his remarks, Dayan basically said that Palestinian autonomy is the best that Palestinians can hope for. He said that the Palestinians had repeatedly refused partition — he cited an offer made by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000, and by immediate past Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 — and he accused the Palestinians of adopting a “winner takes all” approach. “They never, never gave a counter-proposal”, Dayan said. “I know that the conventional wisdom is that we [the settlers] are the obstacle”, Dayan said, but he argued that “the only factor to blame for the failure is the Palestinians themselves — they rejected partitions time and again from 1936 to the present”. In reality, Dayan said, “there are two main Palestinian factions [Hamas and Fatah] and neither wants peace”.

In the briefing, Dayan said that “the right to self-determination of the Palestinians cannot be fulfilled if it will be used to deny my right to self-determination”. He also said that the single greatest contribution he is making to the state of Israel is his decision to live and raise a family in the West Bank [“Judea and Samaria”].

After his briefing, asked if he felt his right to self-determination would have been compromised if the Palestinians had ever accepted any of the various proposals for partition that he had mentioned, Dayan indicated that he would have reluctantly accepted it — but, he argued, again, that the Palestinians would never had agreed to the division — but Dayan also indicted that he believes he should be able to exercise his right to self-determination everywhere in Israel — that is, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.

Dayan noted that those settlements that are called “illegal outposts”, and that the Defense Minister says he will dismantle, “were established by the Government of Israel”. But, he added, “because of tension with the Americans and the Europeans, [former Prime Minister] Sharon chose to do it in an ‘awkward’ way, not in a formal way but in an informal way — a tactic which was legitimate because the government was in the eye of the storm. When the Government of Israel decided they needed a nuclear reactor in Dimona, they could not say it either, and instead claimed to be erecting a textile factory”.

“The outpost communities should be legalized formally, and there is no reason to evacuate them — unless they were placed on private Palestinian land, as what happened with the largest of these outposts, Migron”, Dayan said,”We thought we bought Migron, but we got caught in a sting operation” . And, he added, “other outposts created through legal or illegal processes of the Israeli government should be legalized”.

But, according to a report today in the Jerusalem Post, Israeli defense officials said on Sunday that “The evacuation of illegal outposts in the West Bank will likely take place after the High Holy Days, in late October … An official order to evacuate the outposts has yet to be issued by the Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is still trying to negotiate with settler leaders in an effort to reach a compromise in which the outposts would be evacuated by the residents themselves, the officials said. Last week, Barak met with settler leaders and stressed that the outposts would be evacuated in line with decisions made by previous governments led by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. Defense officials said on Sunday, however, that the evacuations would likely wait until after the holiday season. The postponement was due to Barak’s preference to first exhaust negotiations with the settlers before ordering a forced evacuation. Barak will also likely wait for Ramadan to end and for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to return from his meeting with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly later this month before carrying out the evacuations”. This report can be read in full here .

It was earlier reported that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would be invited to join Obama and Netanyahu for a three-way meeting at the sidelines of the UN meetings later this month in New York, but the latest Israeli announcements of new settlement construction make this rather unlikely.

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