US shifts approach: forget Israeli settlement freeze, focus instead on "core issues"

The U.S. is rolling out a new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse: it has decided to abandon its attempts to get Israel to extend a “moratorium” on settlement building on occupied Palestinian territory, and instead will try to get the parties to focus on “core issues“.

Israeli settlements have, of course, always been one of the “core issues” of this conflict.

The U.S. will apparently propose now, however, that discussions on settlements should be held without reference to anything that might appear to be either a solution or a precondition — such as a “freeze” or “moratorium” on settlements.

Once again, however, this plays along with Israeli negotiating interests, and sacrifices the Palestinian positions…

Josh Rogin ‘s article, “Why the U.S.-Israel settlement deal fell apart”, on the Foreign Policy website here, reports that U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley announced on Wednesday: “We have determined that a moratorium extension will not at this time provide the best basis for resuming direct negotiations We will consult with the parties in the coming days as we move forward. And as we proceed, our position on settlements has not and will not change. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, and we will continue to express that position.”

Though this may sound stern, the latest U.S. position is entirely complimentary to Israel’s expressed desire to set the settlement issue aside, and move to “core issues” [for another decade or so].

Rogin wrote that Crowley noted “that the negotiations over the proposed 3-month extension of the settlement moratorium became too much of the focus of negotiations. ‘We thought that this had, in a sense, become an end in itself rather than a means to an end’, Crowley acknowledged. ‘We’re going to focus on the substance and to try to begin to make progress on the core issues themselves. And we think that will create the kind of momentum that we need to see – to get to sustained and meaningful negotiations’.”

Israel’s YNet website reported that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s said in New York, where he met with UN Secretary-General BAN Ki-Moon, that ” ‘it’s an urgent necessity’ for his country and the Palestinians to find a way to resume negotiations on core issues leading to a peace deal. Barak added that he hopes a formula that moves beyond the current stalemate ‘will be found in coming few weeks in order to keep moving forward’.” This YNet story can be read in full here.

As Rogin reported in his article, “In the most favorable analysis, by taking settlements off the table, the Obama administration can now come up with new and creative ways to get both parties back to the negotiating table — without constantly looking at the clock. ‘We have removed self imposed obstacles by agreeing that we will give up on the settlement freeze and by removing the requirement for direct talks’, said [Rob] Malley [Middle East director for the International Crisis Group]”.

Haaretz reported on Friday, in advance of remarks that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will make tonight to the annual Saban Forum in Washington D.C., that “Clinton would call on the Israelis and Palestinians to begin to grapple with the core issues of the conflict, such as borders, security, refugees, settlements, water and Jerusalem. Crowley added that ‘the United States remains committed to this process, but that responsibility to end the conflict ultimately rests with the parties themselves’.”

The Haaretz article also stated that “U.S. officials hope to make progress on security issues and setting a final border between Israel and a future Palestinian state in separate talks with the two sides, paving the way for a resumption of direct negotiations and an ultimate peace deal. Officials said they expect Clinton to highlight the importance of security and borders in her speech and appeal for the parties to prepare to discuss those matters in depth with American officials in the coming weeks”.

Haaretz noted that Crowley said “I would say we’re definitely not back at square one … We think, through the many, many conversations and work that we’ve done over the course of almost two years, we’ve built a foundation for what lies ahead.” This Haaretz article can be read in full here.

But there appears to be no evidence to suggest that any U.S. introspection and self-criticism caused it to realize that the policy pursued for the past 18 to 36 months or so has been badly mistaken.

Instead, the Administration appears to have concluded that the problem lies only with the parties themselves.

So, the U.S. is now tweaking its approach.

In doing so, it is also returning to former American positions. The recommendation to decide on borders first, because this would determine which settlements are “illegal”, dates back a position formulated by the previous U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the Annapolis process of negotiations that began at the end of November 2007, just over three years ago.

The flaw here is that Israeli negotiators [and apparently also the Americans] seem to believe that the Palestinians they are dealing with will accept large-scale territorial swaps which may legitimize the major Israeli “settlement blocs” in the West Bank.

However, for Palestinians, all the Israeli settlements constructed on land that Israel occupied in the 1967 war are illegal.

And, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the Palestinians are ready to do engage in swaps on such a large scale, though Palestinian negotiators have stated that a compromise may be reached on something about halfway between the 2.4 percent or so of the West Bank that the Palestinians have suggested, and the 9 percent or so that they say the Israelis have put on the table.

Israel has also adamantly maintained that their building program inside the “Greater Jerusalem Municipality” is untouchable.

The Israel argument is based on its unilateral act of amalgamation, in 1967, of a large arc of West Bank land, extending from villages touching Ramallah in the north, to the edge of Bethlehem in the south, running to the east around — and including — the Old City and Holy Basin of East Jerusalem.

Then, in 1980, the Israel parliament and government proclaimed “Greater Jerusalem” as Israel’s eternal and undivided capital.

In September 2008, towards the end of the Annapolis process (and well after Israel’s construction of The Wall around East Jerusalem), Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas an exchange of land within this Greater Jerusalem municipality. But no agreement was reached at the time.

But, all of this is predicated on the assumption that the Palestinians will agree, now, to go ahead with the tweaked American approach while Israeli construction in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, proceeds apace… and here again, there is little evidence that the Palestinian leadership will be able to agree to do so, even if it wanted to.

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