Credit where it’s due

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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.

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First published by BitterLemons.org

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