From charade to sham

October 11, 2010

Eric Ruder analyzes Israel's latest maneuver to block negotiations with the Palestinian Authority--and looks at the prospects for "peace talks" in the future.

ISRAEL'S SELF-imposed 10-month moratorium on the building of Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank expired on September 26, and thousands of settlers took to the streets to celebrate the start of 350 new housing units, with 2,000 more planned to begin soon.

Israel's move caused U.S.-sponsored "peace talks" between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to ground to a halt even before getting started.

From the beginning, Palestinian officials have made clear that they would not take part in direct negotiations while Israel continued to expand its colonial grip on the territory over which the two sides are supposed to be negotiating. Netanyahu's unwillingness to extend the moratorium dealt a heavy blow to the U.S.-sponsored negotiations announced by the Obama administration with so much fanfare in early September.

Last week, U.S. officials succeeded in keeping the talks from collapsing altogether by applying diplomatic pressure to members of the Arab League, who were meeting in Libya. Representatives of the Arab states announced their support for the Palestinian position "not to resume direct negotiations as long as settlement activities are ongoing," but also said that Abbas had proposed several unspecified "options" that they would meet to discuss in a month.

Barack Obama at center, flanked by, from left: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Jordan's King Abdullah II
Barack Obama at center, flanked by, from left: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Jordan's King Abdullah II (Chuck Kennedy)

Thus, the Arab League threw a lifeline to the Obama administration, which is desperate to show progress in its foreign policy agenda in the run-up to November's midterm elections. But keeping the talks going is only part of Obama's gambit. Along the way, Obama hopes to win new friends among Israel's defenders by showing his commitment to Israel's negotiating positions.

TO THAT end, Obama sent a letter to Netanyahu in late September offering a wide array of concessions in exchange for a two-month extension of the settlement-building freeze. David Makovsky of the mainstream think tank Washington Institute for Near East Policy exposed the letter, which was subsequently confirmed by Israeli sources and U.S. senators privy to the details of its contents.

In return for the 60-day extension, Obama promised to veto any UN Security Council resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the next year and pledged to seek no further extensions of the freeze, leaving the issue of settlements to terms negotiated as part of a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Obama also pledged that Israel could maintain its military presence in the West Bank's Jordan Valley even after the creation of a Palestinian state; continue to exercise authority over the borders of the Palestinian territories in order to "prevent smuggling"; supply the Israeli military with upgraded weapons systems; provide more security guarantees and further increases to the billions of dollars in annual U.S. aid to Israel; and forge a regional security pact against Iran.

For Palestinians, revelations about the letter should confirm the pointlessness of engaging in "peace talks" on the terms that are being offered by the U.S. and Israel. But it's unlikely that PA officials will pursue any significant change of course.

Since the beginning of the 1993 Oslo "peace process," the PA has looked to negotiations--or worse, collaboration--with the U.S. and Israel. This is despite the fact that Israel has never truly wanted anything but the charade of peace talks, followed by a "failure" that they blame on the Palestinian side--all while continuing to build settlements, tap into Palestinian water resources and carry out strangulation of the Palestinian economy in order further entrench Israeli domination.

Remarkably, Netanyahu rejected Obama's recent offer, which exposes the fact that his claims to support the establishment of a Palestinian state are "insincere," as author and journalist Jonathan Cook wrote. Cook continues:

The White House's private offer meets most of Netanyahu's demands for U.S. security and diplomatic assistance even before the negotiations have produced tangible results. For Netanyahu to reject the offer so lightly, even though the U.S. was expecting relatively little in return, suggests he is either in no mood or in no position to make real concessions to the Palestinians on statehood.

The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported last Friday that senior White House officials were no longer "buying the excuse of political difficulties" for Netanyahu in holding his right-wing governing coalition together. If he cannot keep his partners on board over a short freeze on illegal settlement building, what meaningful permanent concessions can he make in the talks?

But it's not just Netanyahu who is being insincere. The U.S. claims to be an "honest broker" in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but no further evidence of its real role is needed than Obama's promise to Netanyahu to allow a permanent military presence in the Jordan Valley, which is especially fertile land and holds one-third of the West Bank's water resources. According to Cook:

Allowing Israel to maintain its hold on the Jordan Valley, nearly a fifth of the West Bank, for the foreseeable future...reflects a demand common to all Israeli politicians, not just Netanyahu. In fact, the terms of Obama's letter were drafted in cooperation with Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister and leader of the supposedly left-wing Labor party...

Today, most Palestinians cannot enter the Jordan Valley without a special permit that is rarely issued, and the area's tens of thousands of Palestinian inhabitants are subjected to constant military harassment. B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, has accused Israel of a "de facto annexation" of the area.

But without the Jordan Valley, the creation of a viable Palestinian state--even one limited to the West Bank, without Gaza--would be inconceivable. Statehood would instead resemble the Swiss-cheese model the Palestinians have long feared is all Israel is proposing.

EVEN IF the U.S. somehow finds a way to cajole the Israelis into extending the freeze on building illegal settlements, will this really clear the way for negotiations to accomplish anything resembling a just peace? The answer is a definitive no.

First, according to Phyllis Bennis, the moratorium on building settlements is hardly impressive:

The 10-month settlement moratorium...was filled with loopholes: it only included new housing starts. It allowed continued building of many infrastructure projects, of housing that had already been approved, of anything that had already started--and it never applied to occupied Arab East Jerusalem.

The "compromise" that will likely emerge in coming days will talk about putting off the question of settlements, and starting instead with borders--ostensibly an "easier" issue. It means that the first agreement will be on how much West Bank land--the 22 percent left of historic Palestine--the Palestinians must give up to official Israeli annexation before they can even talk about settlements. And it means that in the meantime, settlement expansion throughout Arab East Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank continues without restriction.

That's the consequence of the U.S. approach to these peace talks: treat the two parties as if they were equals. Make both sides compromise. Make both sides recognize the legitimacy of the other's position.

All fine if the conflict is a border dispute between sovereign states. But when one side is an occupied people, dispossessed and divided, and the other side, the occupying power, is the strongest military force in the region and backed unqualifiedly by the most powerful country in the world, the call for "both sides" to "compromise" is a call for victory for the powerful, and defeat for the rights of the weaker side.

Second, the unwillingness of the U.S., the European Union and the United Nations to hold Israel even minimally accountable to international law means that Israel faces no repercussions for continuing with the status quo.

This is why Netanyahu could call on settlers to exercise "restraint" as the settlement freeze came to an end. According to an article called "The mendacity of restraint" by commentator and activist Richard Irvine:

It is an interesting choice of adjective, for people who show restraint are the injured and outraged; they are victims who although entitled to a full measure of justice settle for less to maintain good will and harmony. In the context of the West Bank settlers and Israel's illegal colonization no adjective could be less appropriate. Yet unwittingly it also reveals the mendacity behind Israel's whole approach to these negotiations.

Settlements--or to describe them accurately, illegal Jewish-only colonies--did not happen by accident; nor do they continue as some sort of unfortunate but unavoidable historical hangover. Rather they are central to Israel's entire policy with regard to the occupied Palestinian territories...

This is the planned imposition of a colonial apartheid system aimed at achieving ethnic cleansing. Even during the heyday of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, the number of settlers doubled. In short, Jewish settlement is a policy that is so central to Israel it has never been willing to curtail it, even for the prize of peace.

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