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Ariel University Upgrade Hardly An ‘Obstacle To Peace’

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It certainly is no secret that Great Britain is adamantly opposed to any construction by Israel on any land claimed by Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. So it was not all that surprising that the UK condemned recent announcements by Israel of construction plans in various areas over the green line. But its hyperbolic reaction to the announcement that the Israeli government is granting university status to Ariel College suggests that not a whole lot of thinking goes into its anti-settlement declarations.

The Guardian of London reported last week that

The British government has warned that the official authorization of Israel’s first settlement university will create another hurdle in the peace process…. In a statement released on Thursday, the British foreign office minister Alistair Burt said the UK was deeply disappointed by the decision. “Ariel is beyond the Green Line in a settlement that is illegal according to international law. This decision will deepen the presence of the settlements in the Palestinian territories and will create another obstacle to peace,” the statement said.

Burt went on to reiterate the UK’s call to reverse the recent decisions approving the construction of new housing units beyond the green line. He commended Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas for the PA’s “measured response” to the settlement announcements, comparing it to “the recent inflammatory statements by Hamas leaders” calling for a third intifada.

We get the political connection but wonder about the obvious stretch. It is hard to understand how an upgrade of a large, flourishing institute of higher learning from the status of “college” to “university” can be an ”obstacle to peace.”

A little history would be useful here.

Writing in his Council on Foreign Affairs blog, former senior state department official Elliott Abrams notes that Ariel College, long Israel’s largest public college, “was founded [in the West Bank settlement of Ariel] in 1982 as a branch of Bar Ilan University, became independent in 2005 and now has a remarkable 14,000 students from all over Israel and even a branch in Tel Aviv. It also has the largest group of Ethiopian-born immigrant students of any university in Israel, and hundreds of Israeli Arab students.”

Mr. Abrams adds that the new university now has five faculties – architecture, natural science, engineering, health sciences, humanities and social sciences – with plans for adding more.

Ariel’s new status will doubtless enhance its educational mission serving large numbers of students, including, as Mr. Abrams points out, Arab students. So how can this be condemned as an “obstacle to peace”?

If this all seems like much ado about nothing, it is – and is reflective of the sophistry that has largely overtaken current opposition to Israeli settlements. While we don’t agree with all of what it had to say, an editorial in Monday’s Washington Post, titled, “Overheated Rhetoric On Israeli Settlements,” is highly instructive. Here are excerpts:

….The predictable result [of the flurry of new construction announcements] has been a storm of denunciations by the United States and every other member of the UN Security Council, along with dire predictions that the building would “make a negotiated two state solution…very difficult to achieve,” as British Foreign Secretary William Hague put it.The criticism is appropriate, in the sense that such unilateral action by Israel, like the unilateral Palestinian initiative to seek statehood recognition in November from the UN General Assembly, serves to complicate the negotiations that are the only realistic route to a Middle East peace. But the reaction is also counterproductive because it reinforces two mistaken but widely held notions: that the settlements are the principal obstacle to a deal and that further construction will make a Palestinian state impossible.

With this as preamble, the editorial goes on to point to a key fact that is usually overlooked:

Mr. Netanyahu’s government, like several before it, has limited building almost entirely to areas that both sides expect Israel to annex through territorial swaps in an eventual settlement. For example, the Jerusalem neighborhoods where new construction was announced last month were conceded to Israel by Palestinian negotiators in 2008.Overall, the vast majority of the nearly 500,000 settlers in Jerusalem and the West Bank live in areas close to Israel’s 1967 borders. Data compiled by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East peace show that more than 80 percent of them could be included in Israel if the country annexed just more than 4 percent of the West Bank – less than 5 percent proposed by President Bill Clinton 12 years ago.

One does not have to accept the numbers or the goals cited by the Post to agree with the gist of the editorial that there is little behind the Palestinians’ refusal to return to negotiations other than their desire for unilateral concessions from Israel. Nor, similarly, can anyone take seriously the uproar of Security Council members over the Israeli settlements.

As the Post editorial concludes:

If Security Council members are really interested in progress toward Palestinian statehood, they will press Mr. Abbas to stop using settlements as an excuse for intransigence – and cool their own overheated rhetoric.

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