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What's New About Failure of US to Stop Israeli Settlement Activities in Palestinian Territories?

By Khaled Amayreh, August 5, 2009


US officials visiting Israel this week have once again failed to convince the government of Binyamin Netanyahu to freeze Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and US envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell held several rounds of talks with Israeli leaders, centering on efforts to revive the peace process with the Palestinians as well as on Iran's nuclear programme. As is customary, the two officials assured Israeli leaders of Washington's "iron- clad commitment to Israel's security" and of the two countries' "enduring special relations".

Two other American officials, National Security Advisor James Jones, and Special Assistant Dennis Ross, are due to arrive in Israel later.

Gates told Israel that the US was getting "tougher" with Iran, saying he understood Israeli fears over the Iranian nuclear programme.

Such reassurances have yet to convince the Israeli leadership to heed American demands for a settlement freeze as Israeli government officials almost daily vow to continue to build settlements in "the Land of Israel".

Israel officials suggest that resistance to American pressure is already softening Washington's demands for a total freeze of settlement activities. Jewish settlers, probably with a green light from the government, staged their own show of defiance, erecting more than a dozen new settler outposts across the West Bank. The Israeli army didn't intervene to prevent the erection of these illegal outposts, suggesting the theft of yet more Palestinian land was done in tacit coordination with the Israeli government.

This week hundreds of right-wing activists led by extremist rabbis protested outside Netanyahu's official residence in West Jerusalem, vowing to build more settlements.

One rabbi, Eliezer Waldman, was quoted as saying "Jews would bring about the disintegration of the United States" if the Obama administration continued to pressure Israel to stop settlement construction.

That Israel's refusal to freeze settlement construction, especially in East Jerusalem, has frustrated efforts by the Obama administration to see an early revival of the peace process, especially at the Palestinian-Israeli track, has led to predictions that Washington may be in the process of abandoning its "settlement-first approach" in favour of a new peace initiative based on the roadmap.

Some commentators have suggested that the US will seek to enlist the entire international community to support the initiative in order to make it difficult for Israel to reject it.

Mitchell, while insisting that the American commitment to Israel is "firm, unshakable and will not change", has argued forcibly that both Israel and the Arab world must take steps towards peace. In response, Israeli officials claimed that the Jewish state had already taken a huge leap forward when Netanyahu belatedly accepted the concept of two states.

Netanyahu gave a speech in June in which he said Israel would accept a Palestinian state of some sort, but he then added a list of restrictions that effectively drained the state of any substance, sovereignty or viability. The borders, air space, water resources and foreign relations of Netanyahu's contemplated state would all remain under Israel's control.

Faced with Israeli intransigence of the settlement issue, Mitchell resorted to speaking in general terms about peace in a throwback to former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Rice visited West Jerusalem and Ramallah 24 times without achieving any progress towards ending the Israeli occupation.

"We are determined to help what we share in common: a desire for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East and that includes Israel and Palestine, Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon and normal relations with all countries in the region. That is Obama's personal objective vision and that is what he is asking to achieve," Mitchell said.

While Mitchell told Palestinian officials that Washington remains committed to a complete freeze of settlements in the West Bank it is becoming increasingly clear that the US is retreating from the position that a settlement freeze is a first priority. Such is the only conclusion to be drawn from Mitchell's reluctance to forcefully raise the issue of settlement expansion with Israeli officials.

Palestinian officials have repeatedly said that there can be no resumption of peace talks with the Israeli government unless settlement expansion halts.

"In order to make the future round of negotiations successful we need to have a framework that can lead to a final resolution," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "Israel has failed to fulfil any of its roadmap obligations, including a settlement freeze, the reopening of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, removal of outposts, the release of Palestinian prisoners and the return to the situation as it was before September, 2000."

The settlement issue, Erekat continued, constituted a "crucial test" of American credibility.

"If the US can't force Israel to stop the construction of building in East Jerusalem, then it becomes futile to count on any American role."

Hamas officials speak in similar terms. A Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip lambasted "those na´ve Palestinian and Arab leaders who are dreaming that the Obama administration will force Israel to end the occupation when the US can't even stop Israel from constructing a single building in East Jerusalem".

Some Palestinian and Arab officials worry that Washington might seek to compensate for its failure to pressure Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank by bullying Arab states to normalise relations with Israel, or at least make gestures in that direction.

Any such move on the part of the American administration would suggest that Washington has swallowed the Israeli line that it is the lack of normalisation between the Arab world and Israel that prevents the latter from ending its occupation and freezing settlements.

Israel has long used the issue of normalisation with Arab countries as a red herring to help evade American and Western pressure. This week, the Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa said there would be no steps towards normalisation with Israel until settlement activities are stopped.




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