It will be interesting to see whether the Palestinians will gut the new round of negotiations with Israel over the announcement of new Israeli settlement construction –and whether Israel will draw the major share of blame should that happen.
Of course, planning for the negotiations proceeded even though Israel never announced the freeze demanded by the Palestinians as a precondition. On the flip side, Israel did go along with another precondition involving the release of Palestinian prisoners – doubtless under intense pressure from Secretary of State Kerry, who has expended much political capital to get the negotiations started.
In the meantime, an editorial in Tuesday’s New York Times underscores what Israel can expect in the blame department. Titled “Shortsighted Thinking on Israeli Settlements,” the editorial had this to say about the reconvening of talks:
There was a certain internal political logic to two announcements made by the Israeli government, just days before Wednesday’s scheduled resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians. Early Monday, the government released a list of 26 Palestinian prisoners to be released Tuesday, most serving sentences for murder and other violent crimes. A few hours before that, the government published bids for the construction of more than 1,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem and existing West Bank settlements – a move apparently designed to mollify right-wingers who would oppose the prisoner release.
This balancing act may have made sense in the narrow world of the Knesset. But, in the broader world beyond Israeli domestic politics, giving the green light to more settlement construction in contested territory is not just untimely but a fresh cause for pessimism about the prospects for successful peace negotiations.
Secretary of State John Kerry has set an ambitious goal of reaching a comprehensive peace settlement within nine months. In any conceivable agreement, at least some West Bank settlements will have to be uprooted. And East Jerusalem is where Palestinians hope to locate the capital of their eventual state.
Why further complicate these already complicated negotiations three days before they start? And why add to the abundant distrust that already divides the two sides after nearly two decades of failed peace efforts?
….Announcing settlement bids now embarrasses Mr. Kerry, who worked very hard to persuade the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, to drop his earlier demand for a settlement freeze. It also unhelpfully embarrasses Mr. Abbas, whose good faith now appears to have been abused and who may now find it harder to sell difficult-but-necessary compromises to his people….
The views expressed in that editorial border on, if they don’t actually breach, the obscene. After acknowledging that “most” of the prisoners to be released are “serving sentences for murder and other violent crimes,” the Times speaks of the settlement announcement as “a move apparently designed to mollify right-wingers who would oppose the prisoner release.” Actually, the vast majority of Israelis are opposed to the prisoner release, so the Times is being disingenuous at best in labeling it a right-wing concern.
And to find fault with the Israeli government for engaging in what the Times interprets as some kind of political tradeoff is the height of hypocrisy since in the same editorial the paper expresses concern that Mahmoud Abbas “may now find it harder to sell difficult-but-necessary compromises to his people.” The Times, of course, would never fret about the challenges faced by an Israeli prime minister in trying to “sell difficult-but-necessary compromises to his people.”
Moreover, why is it legitimate for the Palestinians to build in the West Bank but not Israel? Last Sunday the Times ran a story by correspondent Isabel Kershner headlined “Birth of a Palestinian City Is Punctuated by Struggles.” The story was remarkable for the matter-of-fact way it described Palestinian construction, at a site halfway between Jerusalem and Nablus, as “Palestinian flags fluttered from the tractors and cranes, and a huge one flew outside the tasteful sales office, a symbol that was clearly visible from Ateret, a Jewish settlement of 100 families on a nearby hilltop.”
To be sure, Israel is cooperating to some extent with regard to permits and access to water and other utilities, but there is no final agreement on borders for both Israel and the Palestinians and yet only construction by Israel draws international ire.
The release of 26 Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands (with more waiting in the wings) is a very big deal for Israel as is the issue of a settlement construction freeze, which is tantamount to a declaration that Israel’s claim to the land is suspect. Israelis have paid a frightfully high price in blood and treasure defending themselves against aggressors dedicated to their destruction. Yet they are being told, in effect, that Palestinian demands must drive Israel’s deterrence policy.