Binyamin Netanyahu’s announcement in late November that his government would implement a settlement freeze was not taken seriously by Palestinians, Arabs or other interested and involved parties.
Palestinians warned that the announcement amounted to no more than a public relations gimmick aimed at reducing growing international criticism of Israel’s settlement expansion policies. Palestinian officials made clear that the Israeli "freeze" did not signal any change to Israeli settlement expansion, which is responsible for preventing the resumption of negotiations.
It should be obvious why. The "freeze" excludes occupied East Jerusalem and environs, a total of 22 percent of the West Bank and the focus of most settlement activity anyway. It also excludes some 3,000 housing units already approved and construction projects for public buildings–anything from synagogues to kindergartens. Indeed, Israeli settlement watchers and analysts are on record as saying that this "freeze" will in fact allow Israel to maintain the same level of annual settlement expansion as over the last four years.
Nevertheless, the Israeli government didn’t stop there. As Israeli settlers took to the streets and prevented government officials from serving the freeze orders–while stepping up their attacks on Palestinians and their property, including an arson attack on a West Bank mosque–the Israeli government decided that it would try to appease settlers some more. With its new "national priority map", Israel is now offering even greater economic incentives and subsidies to settlers. This clearly underlines that settlements are a priority over peace to this Israeli government. It also explains why population growth in settlements is higher than in Israel.
On the Palestinian side there is a consistent and firm insistence that settlement expansion is incompatible with the peace process. Both President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are clear that constructive negotiations will only take place if there is a complete freeze on settlement construction as well as clear terms of reference for the talks.
It is the position of the international community that can make a difference here. Clear messages need to be sent to Israel. At this point, with the settlement issue a focus of debate in Israel, international prodding can be extremely helpful. The December 8 European Union statement is an important example. The EU made very clear that it "would not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including with regards to Jerusalem" and that "settlements [and] the separation barrier, built on occupied land, the demolition of homes and evictions, are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible."
Another example came from Britain, where authorities are now expecting products from Israel to be clearly labeled to indicate when some originate in settlements. While this stops short of outlawing such products, it nevertheless indicates their illegality and constitutes a kind of economic sanction.
Such statements and actions can make a difference to Israel and in Israel. Israeli public opinion, which perceives itself as part of the western world, understands the level of Israeli dependence on western support, whether for its military or economic superiority and is usually sensitive to serious messages from the West. And while Europe is not exactly the United States, Israelis may realize that Europe would not have come up with its statement–which would require consensus from every one of the EU’s 27 member states–if the US administration had wanted to prevent it. The same can also be concluded from the relatively mute reaction in Washington to the EU statement.
For now, the near future will witness an increase in settler violence against Palestinians and the continued failure of Israel to comply with its obligations under the roadmap, particularly vis-a-vis settlements, at a time when the Palestinian side is showing an impressive commitment to fulfilling its obligations. This is the situation that anyone trying to help end the conflict and maintain stability in the region will have to grapple with.