Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal last week to block the dismantling of Givat Ulpana enraged the Right in Israel, it was his government’s announcement of the construction of hundreds of new housing units in Beit El, Ariel, Ma’aleh Adumim, Adam, Efrat and Kiryat Arba that caused much more tumult around the world.
The U.S., UN officials and European heads of state once again claimed the construction was inconsistent with international law. PA President Mahmoud Abbas said the announcement of new construction was the latest evidence that Mr. Netanyahu is not interested in negotiations and he – predictably – threatened once again to go back to the UN, this time to seek non-member status there.
Mr. Abbas’s response is revealing. He seems to be telegraphing that he does not expect the U.S. will, at least for now, reverse its position and support full UN membership for the Palestinians, whatever territory that would imply. By any measure he is floundering, unless he is just hoping a reelected President Obama will revert to pressuring Israel to abandon settlement construction in advance of resumed negotiations.
Of course, nothing prevents Mr. Abbas from resuming talks without an Israeli commitment to end new construction. Indeed, the Gaza disengagement demonstrated that nothing is written in stone. And Mr. Abbas concedes he was only following President Obama’s lead when he began insisting on a suspension of construction as a precondition for resuming negotiations. But for Israel, waiving its right to build would signal its acknowledgment that it has no real claim on the land. Why would Israel agree not to build on territory it expects to hold onto in a final resolution of the conflict?
Those who support the Palestinian position no longer do so on the supposed merits of the Palestinian interpretation of international law. Rather, it is a matter of who decides what is essentially a political, not a legal, decision. In fact, both the Israeli and Palestinian positions are theoretically arguable depending on one’s view of the efficacy of a series of military conquests over the course of centuries and whether or not one dismisses the issue of biblical entitlement.
Politics, as always, is what underlies the Israel-Arab dispute.