Settlement Freeze Flap Reveals Israel As Difficult Peace Partner

The very public disagreement about the “settlement freeze” came as a complete surprise to many observers. People who make a business of following Israeli-U.S. politics had concluded that there would continue to be little public friction between the two close allies, at least not until final status issues were negotiated with the Palestinians, and maybe not even then.

The assumption that any disputes would occur behind the scenes became open to question during the Netanyahu-Obama press conference, when the two leaders claimed they were basically in agreement, but then made statements which demonstrated that the opposite was the case. But it is the recent acrimonious wrangling over the U.S. demand that all new construction in the occupied territories must halt, that has revealed that differences of opinion between Obama and Netanyahu have become more public, more quickly than expected. This surprising flare-up between the two close (I would say, too close) allies will undoubtedly be resolved with some diplomatic compromise, however, the brouhaha over the freeze may signify the first sign of possible problems ahead. Israel could be less willing than the Americans believe to agree to the type of peace that the Obama administration may envision.

Certainly all Israeli settlement activity must cease and George Mitchell, the U.S. envoy currently involved in the discussions, should not accept any compromise on halting all building in the territories. But I am not really surprised that on Tuesday he listened to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s compromise proposals for a temporary limited freeze. The meeting apparently ended with no agreement, but avoided any further public confrontation. If the Americans do not stand firmly behind the freeze demand, they will not help their already suspect credibility as a fair mediator in the peace process, although they will assuage Israel’s many powerful supporters in the United States.

In Mitchell’s view expanding the settlements is not compatible with pursuing peace negotiations, since the Palestinians claim the land upon which new housing is being built as part of their future state. According to Mitchell’s analysis, which is apparently presently the view of the Obama administration, who will get which territory should be decided in future negotiations. Any new construction and increased settler population would only make future agreements more difficult. And very importantly, although never mentioned by the Americans, according to international law, all settlements built in territory acquired as a result of war are illegal.

The Israelis have not worried about obeying international law for some time now and so a call for them to freeze all settlements has come as a great shock. It seems that the Americans badly miscalculated the Israeli reaction to their permanent freeze demand. Mitchell’s team should have known that no leading Israeli politician, especially the hard line Netanyahu, would publicly assent to an indefinite halt to building on land a majority of Israelis consider to be as much part of Israel as Tel Aviv.

Israeli expectations have changed and hardened over time. George Mitchell was originally sent to the region by President George W. Bush to produce guidelines for reviving the failed Oslo peace process. He first introduced the idea that a settlement freeze should be a precondition to negotiations in the 2001 report, which bears his name. The report states, “The GOI [Government of Israel] should freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements. The kind of security cooperation [from the Palestinians] desired by the GOI cannot for long co-exist with settlement activity.”

Despite U.S. efforts following the Mitchell Report to restart the peace negotiations, no significant agreements were reached between the parties. In 2003, Mitchell’s call for a freeze was incorporated into the Road Map, the Bush administration’s peace plan, which included the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Barack Obama has adopted the Bush Road Map as a guide in his attempt to establish an end to the conflict.

Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Prime Minister, signed the Road Map, although he made his acceptance of the agreement conditional on 14 restrictive reservations which were appended to the agreement, some of which made the successful implementation of the plan impossible. The first reservation declares that

Both at the commencement of, and during the process, and as a condition to its continuance, calm will be maintained. The Palestinians will dismantle the existing security organizations and implement security reforms during the course of which new organizations will be formed and act to combat terror, violence and incitement (incitement must cease immediately and the Palestinian Authority must educate for peace).

The second reservation states that, “The first condition for progress will be the complete cessation of terror, violence and incitement.” The bottom line is Sharon never intended to implement the Road Map, that is why he added conditions which he could later claim that the Palestinians were not fulfilling, e.g., “educating for peace.” Since the Palestinians would never meet his conditions as set forth in his reservations, the threat of a settlement freeze was negated. Even with the inclusion of Sharon’s reservations, the Road Map authorization passed through the cabinet with seven dissenting votes out of 19 in a particularly stormy session, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

During the Bush years, neither Sharon nor his successor Ehud Olmert took the freeze provision of the Road Map seriously. Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak proposed a temporary freeze of three to six months, with some territorial exclusions. The extension of the freeze would be conditioned on Palestinian and Arab responses. This is reminiscent of Sharon’s strategy of negating the Road Map by placing requirements upon others that can always be said to be unmet at some future time, thus freeing the Israelis from any obligation. Like the Israeli cabinet debate on acceptance of the Road Map, there was significant dissent among a small cabinet group that discussed the temporary freeze proposal. In what was described as a heated debate, three of the six members of the cabinet group expressed strong opposition to even a temporary freeze.

The political situation in Israel is very different today than it was during the days of the Oslo peace process of the nineties and during the turbulent time of the second intifada which followed. It is a mistake to assume that what was acceptable to the Israelis in those days is equally acceptable now. The Americans ignore this at their peril.

Two of the main reasons for the Israeli amenability to peace with the Palestinians no longer exist. Firstly, as Naomi Klein explains in her book, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Israel had an economic incentive to pursue peace in the nineties. Israel hoped that a treaty with the Palestinians would enable it to become a center of commerce for the region. Today with the new reality of a global economy and the burgeoning Israeli technology and military industries, the idea of becoming a regional commercial center has lost much of its appeal. Secondly, Israelis were more willing to make concessions in exchange for a peace treaty because they were exhausted from the daily violence that they experienced as civilians and as soldiers in the occupied territories. Presently, many Israelis are of the opinion that no treaty with the Palestinians is possible, many believing that the Palestinians refused the best possible offer which was given by Barak at Camp David (untrue). They also are enjoying a lower level of violence because of the forceful repression of the Palestinians (true now, but probably will not be true indefinitely).

After the uncritical support that the Israelis enjoyed during the Bush years and the current public mood there, it would be a mistake to predict an Israeli willingness to work with the U.S. toward a peace agreement. The Israelis are going to be much less compliant with U.S. demands than they were during the Clinton administration. Neither Netanyahu nor Barak are now constrained by the Oslo agreements which they both publicly rejected but were forced to adopt during there respective terms as Prime Minister. In addition, the present right-wing government coalition, encourages its leaders’ most inflexible tendencies.

Given the present situation, it is hardly a surprise that Israel will not acquiesce to a complete freeze of the settlements. Mitchell and Obama will probably agree to a compromise in an attempt to avoid a crisis. In doing so they will lose credibility among Palestinians. If the United States wants a viable two-state solution, it will have to force the Israelis to cooperate. The measures required to halt all Israeli settlement activity, such as cutting military aid, are not ones to which the Americans will presently commit. But if the Americans are not prepared to employ harsh measures and take on their reluctant “peace partner” publicly, at some point, there will be no peace in the future.

Ira Glunts is a Jewish-American, recovered liberal Zionist, retired university librarian and avid fan of the Tottenham Hotspur.  He and his wife live in Madison, NY with their five cats. Read other articles by Ira.

4 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. kalidas said on July 3rd, 2009 at 2:30pm #

    “Mitchell’s team should have known that no leading Israeli politician, especially the hard line Netanyahu, would publicly assent to an indefinite halt to building on land a majority of Israelis consider to be as much part of Israel as Tel Aviv.”

    And there it is, the truth in all its glory.

    So much for the phony baloney polls, articles, overly intellectualizing about one state, two state, peace process and all the other nonsense. And nonsense is what it is.
    DeNile ain’t just a river in Eretz Israel.

  2. B99 said on July 3rd, 2009 at 2:51pm #

    It’s good to see some separation between the US and Israel. It will be better if Obama puts some teeth behind the demand for no more settlement expansion. Of course, this is a far cry from upending the settlements and sending the Jews (and they are Jews, not necessarily Israeli) back to Israel. The trouble for Obama is a compliant congress so even if Obama wants to withhold aid, congress will override and even if he wants to withhold support in the UN – Republicans (and some Dems) will be calling for impeachment. And through this all, we should stay tuned to what Palestinians think should be done as their last best US presidential hope runs up against the Iron Wall. We may see a shift in thinking towards a more hard line position in Palestine.

  3. Ismail Zayid said on July 4th, 2009 at 1:00pm #

    This so-called peace process is a charade. Israel has no desire to make peace with the Palestinian people. The Israeli settlement program is an inherent element of the longstanding Zionist colonial program with the planned ethnic cleansing of the palestinian people from their homeland . This plan has been the primary object of all the Zionist leaders from Herzl to Netanyahu.

    The Obama requirement of imposing a freeze on the existing settlements is another charade. These settlements [colonies] are illegal in their entirety and must be removed completely , not a mere afreeze of further activity. The settlements are on illegally occupied territory and are in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and are deemed, by international law, as war crimes.

    If the US governments is truly interested in securing peace in the Middle East, it must demand complete unconditional termination of the the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory and Israeli compliance with UN resolutions and international law.

  4. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on July 4th, 2009 at 4:03pm #

    i also got bad/sad/mad news; oops, old story: the fate of palestine had been sealed by US approval for ’67 aggression against arab lands.
    peres had declared just hours after israeli destruction of some 600 arab jet fighters [ which were still on tarmac] that the ” war was over in first three hours”

    did amers convince arabs that israel wld not wage a war and thus arabs were unprepared? We don’t know. But if US had persuaded arabs that israel wld not attack them, that wld explain why the aircraft was on tarmac and not patroling the sky.
    and arab leaders wld not admit to being duped. Even hussein may have been duped.
    the ’67 war had been waged to obtain all of palestine +. And it still has US blessing.
    so expect the worst ever diktat. Having said this, i also notice that palestinians know all this; so they, too, are playing the same game with same rules but are at least getting paid for ‘negotiating. tnx