The issues of Israeli settlement activity and the need for a settlement construction freeze are again at the top of the political agenda.
This is not least due to the baffling statement by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, hailing the current Israeli position on settlements as unprecedented. While she qualified that statement in subsequent days, it proved the final straw as far as Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, was concerned. He reacted to the statement by announcing, first in front of the PLO’s Executive Committee and then in a speech to the public, that he would not be seeking re-election.
Abbas explained that his decision was prompted by a US position that continues to condone Israel’s settlement project, rendering the peace process that Washington is calling for meaningless.
Clinton made two major mistakes in her statement ten days ago alongside Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. First, the Israeli position on settlements she referred to is not at all unprecedented. Statistics show that, within the definition of the settlement "freeze" the Americans conveyed to the Palestinians, Israel would be building a number of housing units equal to the average it has built over the last four years.
Her second mistake was that she confused a settlement freeze with the future of the settlements. According to the Oslo agreements, negotiations should deal with the fate of settlements. The expansion of settlements was not a final status negotiating issue. There is a logical contradiction between negotiating an end to the occupation on the one hand and continuing settlement construction, which consolidates that occupation, on the other.
This is not the first time Israeli settlement expansion activities threaten the future of the peace process. A thorough study of the history of the peace process reveals that the insistence of Israel to continue jeopardizing and pre-empting negotiations by unilaterally and forcibly creating facts on the ground that are consistent only with Israel’s vision of the future and contradictory to the Palestinian vision has always been a major cause of crisis during the different phases of the peace process. At the same time, it has been a cause of tension and radicalization in Palestinian society.
Abbas and, before him Yasser Arafat, agreed to negotiate while settlement construction continued only in the hope that it would thereby stop. The fact that it didn’t is the reason why Palestinians will no longer agree to negotiate under such circumstances. The other reason is that the Obama administration closely followed the sequence of the roadmap and agreed that settlement construction should stop in preparation for negotiations. It makes little sense for the Palestinian position to have a lower ceiling than that of the US administration.
Many Palestinian analysts, in looking at Abbas’ speech, considered it a denouncement of the US mediation approach. This may provide the international community with an opportunity to revise that approach, which has been unfairly exploiting the imbalance of power and the weakness of the Palestinian side.
It might be an opportunity to bring to an end the ongoing paradigm that assumes that ending the occupation and establishing a state can only be achieved through agreement, thereby giving Israel the power to determine whether this will happen or not and how. A new paradigm might see the international community, rather than the occupying power, take on an active role to end the occupation in order to grant Palestinians their rights to freedom, self-determination and statehood.