Commentary

Are the Peace Talks Cover for More Settlement Building?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Only days after the announcement of an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians to restart direct negotiations on a peace accord, Tel Aviv announced the sale of land for the construction of new homes in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The land sale, authorized by the Ministry of Housing and Construction, has caught many by surprise; although some familiar with the negotiations have indicated the move was expected by both parties. Meanwhile, the announcement has been roundly criticized by both Israeli and Palestinian politicians and observers, some of whom have expressed skepticism about the Israeli government’s real intentions.

The move was immediately condemned by various center and center-left elements of the Israeli political spectrum. For example, Amir Peretz, a minister in the current Israeli government and a member of Ms. Livni’s Hatnua party “accused the Bayit Yehudi party Sunday of recklessly endangering the ‘peace process’ with the initiative to approve 1,200 housing tenders in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. The decision was announced by Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel....’The members of Bayit Yehudi apparently feel that there is a chance for peace, and leave no stone unturned in an effort to sabotage it,’ he added. ‘This is irresponsibility. Whoever endangers the political process risks losing control on the regional level,’ Peretz charged.”

Similarly, in an article for the the business daily Globes (Israel), Ori Chudy cites the Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who was critical of the decision: “'Publishing tenders for the marketing of 1,200 housing units in eastern Jerusalem and in the large settlement blocs is a double mistake….The solutions to the housing problem should be in demand areas, and that is the housing cabinet's objective. In addition, using resources intended for housing for the middle class in order to unnecessarily annoy the Americans and to disrupt peace talks is neither wise nor helpful to the process.’"

Given the timing of the announcement, some have suggested that this was the Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s plan all along -- to use the negotiations as a cover for more settlement construction. The Palestinian news agency WAFA reports that Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary of Palestine Liberation Organization, “expressed concern that the Israeli government was using the negotiations as a cover for its settlement activities following a decision to build a new settlement in East Jerusalem.... ‘It will be impossible to have a political process while there are extensive efforts to create facts on the ground that will prejudge the outcome of the negotiations,’ he said. ‘We cannot be victims of this big deception called negotiations with this ongoing mad settlement activity,” he said.’”

Linda Heard, writing for the Gulf News, is also of the opinion that the revived peace negotiations are looking more “like a giant con…. the current much-touted peace initiative is beginning to look like a giant con, perhaps designed to prove that Obama kept to his pledge and to keep Israel temporarily free of boycotts as well as increasing economic pressure from the EU over expanding Jewish colonies....So, here we go again back on a disingenuous carousel that goes around-and-around from time to time, igniting hopes that, until now, have always been cruelly dashed. Barring a miracle, it won’t be long before the Palestinians find themselves back at square one witnessing a staged land grab that leaves a state called Palestine mere words on paper.”

However, according to Jerusalem Post reporters Tovah Lazaroff and Daniel Eisenbud, the members of the Palestinian negotiating team had been previously briefed on such a development, which was meant to go hand in hand with the release of the Palestinian prisoners: “The announcement comes in advance of the anticipated release of 26 Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands, who have been jailed for over two decades. Both steps are a prelude to the second round of direct peace talks, which will be held in Jerusalem on August 14 between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators....It was understood that settlement activity would continue when a new nine-month negotiating period was announced at the end of July. It was expected that Israel would time its announcement of new housing to coincide with the release of Palestinian prisoners.

The National (UAE) reporter Hugh Naylor suggests there are more unpleasant surprises for the Palestinians in the coming months: “The settler announcement overshadowed the expected release tomorrow of 26 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. It was also a calculated snub to the US secretary of state John Kerry, who brokered talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders expected to resume in Jerusalem on Wednesday....To accommodate Mr Netanyahu and his pro-settlement government, Mr Kerry appears to have successfully persuaded Mr Abbas to drop his key demand - a halt to settler construction. He also appears to have persuaded the Palestinian leader to drop his other demand - that Israel use as a basis for negotiations the borders that existed before the 1967 war.”

Regardless of whether the two parties were already aware of such a possibility or not, there is little doubt in the mind of most observers that such a development casts a long shadow over the negotiations and their prospects for success. In an op-ed for Yedioth Ahronoth, Dov Weisglass believes that is the only reasonable conclusion since it appears that the Israeli government “wants the chain of Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be as long as possible, to the point where it will cross the West Bank almost in its entirety. Meaning, the government's decision casts doubt on its desire to reach an agreement with the Palestinians....The Israeli government's decision is aimed at deepening, expanding and enlarging the Israeli "holes" in the Palestinian "slice of cheese," despite knowing full well that the Palestinians will never agree to a state that is dissected by Israeli settlements, and neither will the international community.”

The Khaleej Times editorial also expresses concern over the lack of specificity in the document outlining the way forward for the negotiations: “The equation at this point of time is one of confusion and mistrust — and could act as the biggest impediment as parties concerned touch upon intricate issues such as the redrawing of borders and deciding over the right to return for Palestinians in diaspora. Another unfortunate aspect is that no reference has been made towards a two-state solution, as delegates under Saeb Erekat and Tzipi Livni meet — and this is tantamount to making the whole process quite cosmetic.”

Finally, given the difficult start, the Oman Tribune editorial calls on the United States to play a more even-handed role in the negotiation process: “Kerry, no doubt, has worked hard to bring the two sides together but the fact is that he did not take any firm assurances from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel would desist from building new settlements or expand old ones. And this blunder may cause yet another disaster. It’s time the Americans became realistic and understood the intentions of the Israelis and stop giving them wholesale backing for most of their illegal actions that have proved costly for the Palestinians.”


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