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Settlement Freeze: No Exceptions

By M J Rosenberg, May 26, 2009


Clarifications in blue are added by the editor of

Prime Minister (of the Israeli occupation government) Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington was pretty much a bust. That is because the definition of a successful meeting between world leaders is one where some sort of agreement is reached. Netanyahu’s discussions with President Barack Obama (and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others) resulted in little meeting of the minds. The two governments strongly disagree on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Their differences were neither narrowed nor widened this week, they were only more clearly delineated. We now know where each side stands.

The sharpest difference between the two leaders was over the two-state solution and the methods employed to achieve it. Obama repeatedly invoked the two-state concept while Netanyahu simply refused to utter the phrase. This refusal represents a repudiation of Israel’s previous policy, a significant step backwards.

Netanyahu did say that he favors the immediate resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. But, by refusing to endorse a Palestinian state as one of the goals of those negotiations, he removed any incentive for Palestinians to engage in the process. His idea of negotiations is Seinfeldian: they would be about nothing. Netanyahu’s “peace process” would involve a little economic development here, a little institution-building there, but nothing truly significant.

Does anyone really think that the Palestinians are going to negotiate with Israel in order to achieve an amorphous form of autonomy (which is all Netanyahu is offering)? That idea was rejected by the Palestinians when Prime Minister (of the Israeli occupation government) Menachem Begin offered it thirty years ago.

Nor are Palestinians interested in Netanyahu’s plans for economic growth projects while under occupation. Would the Israelis of 1947 have abandoned their dream of statehood in exchange for economic development projects? If economic development and infrastructure were such significant incentives, the Jews (who were allowed by the British  to enter Palestine) would happily have stayed within the British Empire. After all, the British were providing both.

Of course, the Jews (who were allowed by the British  to enter Palestine) would not have traded sovereignty for infrastructure. All peoples want and deserve economic improvement, but few, if any, will give up national rights to achieve it.

Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians develop the institutions of a democratic state before actually having a state is both silly and redundant. Most of those institutions have been developed since the Palestinian Authority was established in 1993. The Palestinians would, as is normal, develop the rest once they control their own territory (and lives), not while under total Israeli occupation.

In any case, Netanyahu’s offer is meaningless so long as settlements, the wall, checkpoints, and Israelis-only roads make Palestinian commerce impossible. In a sense, Netanyahu is hoisted on his own petard. There can be no significant Palestinian economic development under occupation.

Economic development requires freedom of movement—and that requires moving toward the end of the occupation, which is most certainly not Netanyahu’s intention. His goal seems to be to maintain the occupation for as long as possible in order to avoid conflict with the crazy right, for whom Israel’s security is infinitely less important than maintaining its hold on “Judea and Samaria.”

Fortunately, the Obama administration understands that and is therefore demanding that Israel “stop settlements” as a first step.

That is utterly reasonable. The settlement enterprise continually gobbles up the land upon which a Palestinian state would be built. Every settlement, legal or illegal, is an obstacle to Palestinian sovereignty. Allowing settlements to remain is to condemn Palestinians to permanent refugee status which is, to a large extent, the point. If Washington is determined to see implementation of the two-state solution, the settlements have to be stopped.

The problem is that for thirty some years successive Israeli governments have ignored the United States on this issue. On occasion, it accepts a “settlement freeze,” but then creates exceptions. It maintains that the freeze does not apply to East Jerusalem, that it does not apply to “natural growth,” or to the major “settlement blocs.”

Today, the Israeli government simply says that stopping settlements is impossible because doing so would bring down the Netanyahu government—which is hardly America’s problem. If the Obama administration believes that opposing settlements is a matter of principle, it must insist upon it without exception and without regard to Netanyahu’s political situation.

This is not to say that Israelis cannot assert a right to exceptions related to East Jerusalem, “natural growth,” settlement blocs, or whatever, once borders are established. Of course they can. But only in the context of final status negotiations, not in advance of negotiations or as an excuse not to engage in negotiations.

The same applies to Israel’s desire for recognition as a Jewish state or its insistence that the Arab moderates offer “confidence-building” concessions in advance of negotiations. It is all well and good to request that the Arab states permit El Al planes to fly over their territory, but only after the completion of successful negotiations.

Demanding these concessions as a precondition for negotiations is a total nonstarter. By the same logic, the Palestinians should be able to demand recognition of their right to a capital in East Jerusalem as a precondition for negotiations. But they don’t. They simply state that they will place that demand on the table once final status negotiations begin.

Neither side should be permitted to establish preconditions for negotiations. Stopping the settlements is not a precondition because their increase makes an agreement impossible (once the land is gone, there is nothing to negotiate about). It is comparable only to the cessation of terror. No one would ask Israel to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority while the PA was engaged in terror activity against Israel. For Palestinians, the settlement enterprise, which turns their lives into a living hell, is the same thing. The only difference is that the PA does not engage in acts of terror and, with American assistance, is successfully combating attempts at terror by others. The settlements, however, continue to grow. And grow. And grow.

The Obama administration is right to insist on a settlement freeze and the elimination of illegal outposts, without exception. Otherwise, the peace process that Obama is determined to bring to completion will be stillborn. Palestinians do not like our position on refugee return. Israelis do not like our position on getting rid of the settlements. Fine. They have the right to be heard. But in the context of final status negotiations, not as a precondition for them.

President Obama surely understands that. As Prime Minister Netanyahu must have learned during his meeting with our new president, the man was not born yesterday.


MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.





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