The US is insisting on restarting talks between the Palestinians and Israel, but to what end, asks Khaled Amayreh in occupied Jerusalem
August 28, 2009
Having utterly failed to get Israel to freeze Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, especially in East Jerusalem, the Obama administration is now asking Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to resume peace talks as soon as possible.
The US State Department said this week it was getting closer to winning the agreements of both Israel and the PA to resume talks. Spokesperson Ian Kelly told reporters that the "process of laying the groundwork for Israeli Palestinian-peace talks is moving closer to fruition".
However, Kelly failed to corroborate his optimism with tangible facts.
It is not clear why the US is insisting on jump- starting the stalled talks at this time. However, diplomats and observers opine that the Obama administration has effectively lost the showdown with the Netanyahu government over the settlement issue and is now hoping that the highly contentious issue can be "treated more satisfactorily" in bilateral talks between the two conflicting sides.
This assumption, however, is being viewed coolly by Palestinian leaders and the Arab world at large as a definitive retreat from the original US position that Israel must first freeze settlement construction as part of its obligations under the "roadmap" plan. PA official Saeb Erekat, while welcoming Washington's strong involvement in the peace efforts, has advised the Obama administration to refrain from making the same mistakes as the Bush administration. He argued that the real problem facing the peace process was not the resumption of negotiations but rather getting Israel to recognise the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and end, once and for all, the decades-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has been calling for an "unconditional" resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians. Netanyahu believes the appearance of Israel and the PA indulging in peace talks, irrespective of whether such talks would yield any substantive results, would shield Israel from mounting international criticisms over the settlement expansion issue and allow the Jewish state to pursue its colonialist interests, especially in East Jerusalem.
This week, Israeli authorities approved plans to build hundreds of settler units in the heart of Arab East Jerusalem. The planned new settlement in the densely populated Arab neighbourhood of Ras Al-Amud is meant to kill the possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the future capital of a prospective Palestinian state.
Earlier, Israel and the US had been working on a "package deal" whereby Israel would accept a moratorium on settlement building for a period ranging from six months to two years. Israel reportedly agreed on a certain moratorium but insisted on completing thousands of settler units currently being built all over the occupied Palestinian territories. Israel insisted that it wouldn't agree to any settlement freeze in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu was scheduled to travel to London this week for talks with US Peace Envoy George Mitchell to reach agreement on the duration of the proposed moratorium. Netanyahu is also scheduled to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. Last week, the German Foreign Ministry called settlements "one of the biggest impediments to peace in the Middle East". "We and our partners, the Americans, have made it very clear that we see the settlements issue as one of the biggest impediments to a two-state solution," German Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke was quoted as saying. "There must be urgent progress on settlements to make progress on Middle East [peace]."
Peschke acknowledged that while Israel was "thinking seriously about its policy, there is no definitive movement on the settlement question yet". Israel, for its part, rejected the German criticisms as "irrelevant" to the resumption of the peace process. "These statements are not part of any diplomatic negotiations; they are unrelated to reality and distort it," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.
Earlier, infamous Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has been keeping a low profile apparently for fear of damaging Israel's image and diplomatic interests, was quoted as saying that he didn't foresee peace at all. "It will be impossible in the next 16 years to bridge the gaps on Jerusalem, the refugees, or on Israel as a Jewish state."
Lieberman also said that while he didn't believe anything would come of current efforts to re- launch the peace process, he was giving Netanyahu room to manoeuvre in talks with the Americans.
Meanwhile, the Israeli group Peace Now underscored the mendacity of Israeli claims that settlement construction was being frozen. The group pointed out in a new report on settlement growth that in the first half of 2009, Israel was constructing 600 new buildings in West Bank settlements, with 96 new buildings constructed in the so-called "illegal outposts". According to the report, 35 per cent of the buildings are constructed on the eastern -- Palestinian -- side of the apartheid wall. The construction of permanent homes has risen by eight per cent since last year, while the placement of trailer homes dropped by 43 per cent.
The same Israeli group said there were currently 40,000 new buildings authorised for construction, according to available plans, the vast majority in settlement blocs like Gush Etzion and Maale Adumim near Jerusalem.
Construction was also underway in 10 out of 23 outposts that Defence Minister Ehud Barak committed to ending, with three new trailer homes added to the Avigail outpost, five new trailer homes added to Bnei Adam outpost, six to Havat Gilad, and two new buildings and two trailer homes in Mitzpeh Lachish, among others.
The Peace Now report underscored the worthlessness of promises and pledges made to the Americans by Israeli officials.
Barak has held several high-profile meetings with Mitchell and solemnly undertook to freeze settlement buildings east of the annexation wall, as well as to dismantle more than 20 illegal outposts created by settlers, mostly with the tacit agreement of the Israeli occupation army.
Israeli intransigence on the settlement issue as well as obvious reluctance on the part of the Obama administration to exert meaningful pressure on Israel is creating despair within the Palestinian leadership. Whereas the PA had made commitments not to re-engage in talks without a settlement freeze, there are signs it is retreating from this position -- if only to demonstrate to the Americans, for the "umpteenth time", as one Palestinian official put it, Palestinian willingness to engage in talks and total Israel intransigence.
At the same time, the PA is backed against a wall, as initiating a new round of open-ended talks with Israel would be deeply unpopular amongst Palestinians. Fatah, the backbone of the PA, risks losing its recently enhanced popularity if another exhausting round of peace talks with Israel proves fruitless, as most Palestinians and Arabs believe it will be, barring decisive US interference that would force Israel to take a strategic decision to give up the spoils of occupation.
With Fatah pressing to hold Palestinian general elections in January, and with no real progress in the peace process achieved, the movement will have a hard time convincing the Palestinian public to give it or its strategic outlook the benefit of the doubt.