Settlements First

Ever since the speech by US President Barack Obama at Cairo University on June 4, 2009, construction in the West Bank settlements has become the focus of political attention in both Israel and the world. The clear, even blunt position of Obama is: “Freeze it!” This has been received in Israel with astonishment, as if a freeze were totally illogical. The Netanyahu government answered by unsheathing the “understandings” that Ariel Sharon had achieved, supposedly, with the Bush administration, but US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied there had been any. Israel then responded by claiming that construction was needed to accommodate “natural growth”; here the expansion of the settlements was presented as a humanitarian act, meeting the basic needs of the residents: living quarters, day-care centers, synagogues and other public buildings. But this time, in contrast with days of yore, the Americans did not back off. They knew the long history of Israeli subterfuges that had served as cover for the enormous settlement expansion since the signing of the Oslo Accords.

Taking the American side, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, Tzipi Livni, was quick to accuse Netanyahu of superfluously creating an impediment in US-Israel relations. In April, we recall, when Netanyahu asked Livni and her party to join his government, she rejected his bid because he had refused to commit to the principle of “two states for two peoples.” She took the position that the border between the states, as agreed to by the Palestinians in their talks with her, would anyhow leave the settlement blocs in Israel’s hands. Yet without commitment to a two-state solution, construction in those blocs would be hard to justify.

Netanyahu understood the message. In his Bar Ilan speech, intended as his answer to Obama, he came out for a Palestinian state. However, he took pains to present certain principles that eliminated any real possibility for its coming into existence: Palestine, he said, must recognize Israel as a Jewish state; it must be demilitarized (this implies not only the lack of an army, but also lack of control over borders and air space, and no possibility of forging alliances); and, finally, the dropping of all demands that the refugees be permitted to return to Israel. He pledged to expropriate no further lands for settlements, but he pointedly omitted any mention of a construction freeze. It is no wonder that the Palestinians rejected these conditions. The Americans, however, tried to make the best of the speech, while continuing to push for an Israeli commitment to stop construction in the settlements.

As expected, Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech did not get anything started. On the contrary, Foreign Secretary Avigdor Lieberman, in a press conference with Hillary Clinton, enunciated Israel’s outright refusal to freeze construction. The result followed quickly: a scheduled meeting with America’s special envoy to the region, George Mitchell, was canceled.

After the Israeli Foreign Secretary had burned his bridges with the US (and not only with the US: consider French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recommendation to Netanyahu that he fire Lieberman), Defense Minister Ehud Barak was sent to pull the chestnuts out of the fire. This journey led to negotiations on a temporary freeze. Yet once again, Israeli preconditions torpedo any chance that this will happen. In return for the temporary freeze, according to the local press (Yediyot Aharonot and Haaretz, week of July 2, 2009), Israel demands a commitment by the Arab states to normalize relations; Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; and the promise that a future Palestinian state will be demilitarized. In short, the Palestinians are to forfeit all their bargaining chips in return for a temporary freeze on Israeli settlement construction, and with no commitment on Israel’s part to withdraw to the 1967 borders or dismantle even one illegal outpost.

For the American administration, an Israeli commitment to a construction freeze in the settlements would enable Washington to jumpstart a political process within the Palestinian Authority (PA), aimed at bolstering the shaky position of its president, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). The radical elements in the Arab world, and especially Hamas (which has ruled the Gaza Strip since its bloody ejection of Abbas supporters in 2007) see no reason for concessions as long as Israel’s right-wing government abides by its refusal. True, both Arab extremists and moderates welcomed Obama’s Cairo speech, but they raised questions about his ability to influence, saying, in effect, Let’s see you translate words into action.

A commitment to freeze construction in the settlements could result in the breakup of the present Netanyahu government; meanwhile, the PA is already divided, leaving Abbas no authority to reach binding agreements. Recently the reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah, conducted in Cairo under Egyptian mediation, collapsed for the umpteenth time. With American assent, Abbas avoids renewing the negotiations with Israel because of its refusal to stop settlement construction, and at the same time he hardens his positions toward Hamas. For its part, Hamas demands liberty for 800 of its supporters imprisoned by the PA in the West Bank, as a condition for an agreement that will enable new presidential and parliamentary elections in January 2010.

Obama is operating on two fronts. On one he presents Netanyahu with hard choices, and on the other, he exerts enormous pressure on Hamas, demanding that it forgo armed struggle and accept the Oslo agreements. In this context we may understand the green light given by Washington to the establishment of a new Palestinian government under Salam Fayyad, whom it trusts (and whom Hamas detests). Likewise, we can understand why Washington exerts no pressure on Israel to lighten the siege of Gaza.

The intention is clear: America seeks to prevent, at all costs, a (likely) Hamas victory in the next elections. It doesn’t want to repeat the mistake of 2006, when Hamas won – and instead of moderating its positions, used the victory as a springboard for taking over Gaza and strengthening itself in the West Bank. If Hamas desires new elections, it will have to recognize the legal framework on which the PA is based. One plays by the rules or one does not play.

But Obama stands before two leaders who refuse to play by the rules. One refuses to recognize Israel, the other refuses to recognize Palestine. The first is Khaled Mashal, head of Hamas, and the second is Binyamin Netanyahu. Both would endanger their political futures by accepting the American conditions. Thus we find a strange common interest between the two, each using the other’s existence to justify non-entry into a process aimed at ending the conflict.

Obama too has a lot to lose. The Republican opposition is waiting for him to slip. But let us suppose that his plan were to work: Hamas agrees to forgo armed struggle and play by the rules, and Israel freezes construction in the settlements — what then? Now arises the question: what does Obama have in mind when he says “two states”? He has indeed proclaimed his commitment to a Palestinian state, but he is also committed — and this above all – to Israel’s security. If so, then what kind of Palestinian state are we talking about? What kind of sovereignty will it have? Will it enjoy territorial contiguity? What will be done with Jerusalem? What will be the fate of the refugees? Given America’s strategic commitments to Israel — and given Obama’s silence concerning these questions — we cannot but worry that he basically accepts the Israeli version of a Palestinian state, a version that empties it of all content.

Obama’s basic problem when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the same as his problem when it comes to America’s economic issues: he is trying to bring about far-reaching change within a failed framework. His apparent inability to go outside the box — global capitalism on the one hand, and the Oslo agreement on the other — is likely to be his nemesis. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires a solution within a new strategic framework. Here Israel must no longer be the dominant player, rather one among the nations of the region. It must no longer occupy the land of others, but must gain acceptance on the basis of its readiness to respect the sovereignty of its neighbors, including Palestine.

Yacov Ben Efrat is the editor of Challenge, a bi-monthly leftist magazine focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a global context, where this article first appeared. Published in Tel Aviv by Arabs and Jews, Challenge features political analysis, investigative reporting, interviews, eye-witness reports, gender studies, arts, and more. Please visit the Challenge website and support their important work. Read other articles by Yacov, or visit Yacov's website.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on July 11th, 2009 at 10:51am #

    in short, country [as of yet of unknown size/borders] for ‘jews’ and a county for pals with abbas as general of the gazan sea that extends 3 meters from beach to the ‘jewish sea’ and admiral of the dead sea and the counties.

  2. Max Shields said on July 11th, 2009 at 12:24pm #

    It seems we continue to talk about a “two-state” solution as if it is the practical course, when in fact it is least practical for either party.

    Israeli’s do not want a two-state solution anymore than Palestinians do. This is a myth which alludes reality and parity. The land in dispute cannot be divided in such a way which would make it workable or sustainable for either party.

    The use of the word “two-state” is simply a way to defer the issue. A real two-state solution, even if geographically possible, would not be politically sanctioned by the US/Israel side. A sovereign Palestine with its own military, it’s overwhelming population would diminish, naturally, the power of the Zionist state.

    But even if the parties really wanted to agree on this, the mere geography, the demand for water alone would make this dual state untenable.

    Jonathan Cook had this to say…

  3. bozhidar balkas vancouver said on July 11th, 2009 at 1:03pm #

    if US will not permit expulsion [ever?] of the palestinians, then ‘jewish’ only state, being an evil, can only be maintained by evil means.
    but if US has the plan to allow expulsion, then a jewish state will be established.
    in connection to this, we can note that US had never even hinted at, let alone explicitly said, that it wld never permit expulsion of pals.
    this is telling fact. Which means US will allow it some day?!. tnx

  4. Debra Swan said on July 11th, 2009 at 6:34pm #

    Hmmm, let’s see things objectively for a moment. There are 22 Arab states with over a billion people. There is one tiny little Jewish state with less than 10 milion. Then there are the 1,000,000 Jews forced from their homes in Arab countries in 1948. Do they get their homes back if the Palestinians get more land? No? Why not? The Jews defended themselves and won their land. Why is Israel the only country in the history of mankind not allowed to defend itself and/or keep the spoils of war? Grandchildren of Palestinians who never set foot in Gaza are not allowed citizenship in Arab countries. Why? Hint: It has nothing to do with the land. It’s an excuse, an excuse to take away that little bit of land from the Jews. Why do Arab men fear this tiny country? The country that has always stated again and again it just wants to live in peace? Pathetic excuse for manliness.

  5. opeluboy said on July 12th, 2009 at 5:04pm #

    Troll alert.

  6. B99 said on July 14th, 2009 at 6:23am #

    debra – Hmmm, let’s be even more objective. There are 195 states – with few to many Jews in virtually all of them. There is a Jewish state – (though no Kurdish state, no Tibetan state, no Uighur state, no Zulu state, no Navajo state, and certainly no Palestinian state). So since the Jews got their state – and on Palestinian land, no less – why would you begrudge the Palestinians getting what’s left of their own country? Maybe you think that it would be OK if the US conquered the rest of Mexico – the Mexicans could just move in with some other Span-yard people, no? Maybe the Argentinians or Peruvians? And the Peruvians and Argentines would welcome them as Latino brothers, no?

    The Jews that left the Arab lands did so after the Jews poisoned relations by establishing a Jewish state on Palestinian land. Israel carried out acts of sabotage in the Arab lands – that is, Israel sabotaged synagogues so that the bombings would be blamed on the Arabs. This satisfied Israel’s need to populate its frontier with Jews and its need for working class labor.

    The Israeli issue with Jews who immigrated from the Arab countries is one for Israel to take up with those countries (where the Jews are welcome to come back, by and large). It is not a Palestinian issue but for the fact that the incoming Jews were given the homes and property of the expelled Palestinians. At Taba, Israel and the Palestinians officially divorced the issue from their own conflict.

    You say, the Jews defended themselves and won the land. That, of course, cannot be true inasmuch as it was the Jews who were the outsiders, the colonizers – it was necessarily the Palestinians who had to defend themselves and their country, all be they largely defenseless against modern European weaponry and the ideology of racial zealots. BUT, if you think that it’s only a matter of the spoils of war, then what do you have to say to the one-staters here that want Israel dissolved? If Israel lost a war and was removed from the map, that would be okay, no?, as that would be the spoils of war.

    For the record, Palestinians in Jordan make up more than half of Jordan’s citizenry. Elsewhere, Palestinians have not pursued citizenship as YOU have their land and property – they have the deeds and keys to prove it. And to the extent that Palestinian grandchildren cannot set foot in Gaza or the West Bank – that’s your doing.

    If only your people had asked permission to live in Palestine – had asked permission of the people that have lived there since long before the Hebrews arrived and since the Jews left – if only the Jews of Europe had come in true peace, and not to take the land and evict and eviscerate. Instead, they not only embarked upon one of the sorriest colonial histories on the planet, they want to continue more of same and they don’t even want to admit their history even as their own scholars present them with the sordid details. What gives you the right?

  7. B99 said on July 14th, 2009 at 3:17pm #

    There is no basis for your solution. The world does not recognize Israel beyond its pre-67 borders. That has to be rolled back politically or you lose all claim to even the lands legally known as Israel. If might makes right then there can be no complaint if Israel dissolves. The only other option you leave is for one state in all of Palestine for all Palestinians and whatever Jews care to stay. That is the likely eventuality, but I think you know that.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain said on July 14th, 2009 at 6:44pm #

    Well said B99. I’m afraid Debra is pretty brainwashed with Zionist faery stories. I recommend she reads Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing Of Palestine, acquaint herself with the reality of Plan Dalet and the aggression, mass murder and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians by the Judaic Herrenvolk, and then get back to us. I also found Chomsky’s ‘Fateful Triangle’ immensely informative, if deeply depressing in its compendious collection of all the atrocities, cruelties and abominations of Zionism over the years. If she can keep her current, deeply misinformed prejudices after that, then she is a typically brainwashed Zionist lost cause.

  9. B99 said on July 17th, 2009 at 1:21pm #

    Yes Mulga – Pappe’s works are essential reading – you know he now holds a professorship in England as he was hounded out of Israel.

    And Chomsky’s ‘Fateful Triangle’ is great. Chomsky is generally hated on this site – but more important than that is that he is hated by all Zionists for his methodical exposure of Israel’s post-67 malignant history.

    Maybe Debra is rescue-able. I know a 67 year old Zionist Jew that has come 180 degrees. However, they are a rare breed.

  10. dan e said on July 17th, 2009 at 2:18pm #

    May 17 article; also cf his links. also “Israel Shamir”‘s site

    I’m realizing how many there are out there who are way ahead of me as well as of the usual level of discourse on DV. I’ll be spending less time on DV and more on other sites/blogs with more to offer, but from time to time I’ll try to post some of the URLs I’m finding.

  11. bozh said on July 17th, 2009 at 2:51pm #

    well, i don’t hate chomsky. What i rejected was his advice to vote for “lesser evil”. To me, no true peace activist wld have done that with cynthia an ralph running.

    chomsky is also zionist. He rightfully criticizes isr, but so do others. And he deserves praise for bringing out the facts about Israel.
    but not for rewarding irgun, stern, and haganah crimes against indigenes by rewarding them with a state.

    thus, his jewishness is more imporatant to him than a sane solution; i.e., a binational state.
    to me, he’s major disappointment! I neve said i hated chomsky; thus it is very disingenious to put your words in my mouth. tnx

  12. B99 said on July 17th, 2009 at 5:19pm #

    Bozh – I did not have you in mind re Chomsky, just that the discourse here is overwhelmingly anti-Chomsky. Your name is not mentioned in that post and so it can hardly be said I was putting words in your mouth. Why would that statement be about you when Chomsky’s name has surfaced innumerable times on DV?

    Chomsky has a very long history of critiques on a number of important human rights/civil rights issues – and I think he is far closer to being correct on these things than most anyone in who rules us in America. His research is meticulous and he has exposed the crimes of the Yishuv’s pre-state militias. I disagree with him on the importance of pre-67 history in Palestine, but agree with him that the Israeli state will not be dismantled by force. I disagree with him that Israel nestles neatly into the global thrust of US hegemony but instead think that a peculiar set of circumstances has led to the tail wagging the dog – within certain specific parameters regarding that country and the region.

    Chomsky likely believes a Jewish state was necessary (I don’t) but we both understand that its founding is long ago water under the bridge and that an outline of a peace/justice settlement forbids any expansion beyond its legal borders. The chance of a binational state, me and the Chomster would agree, is less likely than Croatia and Serbia forming one.