Negotiations and settlement construction cannot coexist

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One subject on which there is complete Palestinian consensus across the political spectrum is that negotiations and Israeli settlement expansion in occupied territory including East Jerusalem are mutually exclusive.

Indeed, according to numerous studies and surveys, one of the main reasons for the steady decline in public support for the PLO leadership, whether under President Mahmoud Abbas during the Annapolis process or the late President Yasser Arafat before him, is that they continued negotiating with Israel in spite of the settlement expansion.

There is a very simple, logical reason for this. The peace process, from a Palestinian perspective, is about ending the occupation that started in 1967. This is necessary in order to allow for the creation of a Palestinian state to live alongside Israel and thus necessary for the two-state solution that the world has declared is the only proper resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However settlement construction–including expansion of existing settlements, the establishment of new settlements, or construction of settlement infrastructure such as road networks and the wall–is about consolidating the occupation.

Hence if negotiations are about ending the occupation there must first, as a logical necessity, be an end to settlement construction. Settlement construction renders negotiations meaningless.

But the negative consequences of settlement construction are not just felt regarding chances for a negotiated peace agreement. Continued settlement expansion also impacts on the domestic balance of power on the Palestinian side, because such construction directly strengthens the opponents to the peace process who argue that a negotiations process will not secure legitimate Palestinian aspirations for statehood and freedom from occupation.

The last few months have witnessed renewed Palestinian hope for a meaningful negotiating process. Expectations have been raised because a US administration has, for the first time, demanded that in order for it to renew its political efforts vis-a-vis the conflict Israel must fulfill its obligations under the roadmap, which became a resolution of the United Nations’ Security Council, and stop all kinds of settlement activity and expansion, including for so-called natural growth.

The resulting tension between Israel and Washington over this issue has put the credibility of both the peace process and the new American administration on the line. Should the US government and the rest of the international community fail to make Israel abide by its international commitments, especially regarding ending the expansion of settlements, it will sabotage efforts to renew the political process. And even if negotiations did resume, the resulting process would founder yet again on the rocks of the settlement project.

On the other hand, should Washington be successful in its "friendly" efforts to persuade Israel to stop its settlement expansion there will be more than one positive effect. Ending settlement expansion will not only secure the resumption of a meaningful process, it will, to a large extent, empower the peace camp and undermine the opposition, not only in the Palestinian context but also in Israel and the region.

Crucially, it will also allow again for the practical possibility of a Palestinian state. Without a freeze to settlement expansion, the very concept of the two-state solution will be undermined. And a two-state solution is the inescapable precondition for peace between Israel and the Arab world.

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