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Issue #1448      24 March 2010

On the storm over Israeli settlements

US Vice President Joe Biden.

Since Israel announced yet another new settlement in occupied East Jerusalem during the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden, Israel has been subjected to a storm of criticism from friend and foe alike. Biden was in Jerusalem to show US support for Israel and to launch “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) of Ramallah. Instead the Israeli announcement caused him and the US administration deep embarrassment, prompting several officials to term it an “insult” and an “affront” and to stir talk of the worst crisis in US-Israeli relations in decades.

This might be music to the ears of those long frustrated by American silence on Israel’s constant violations of international law, but it actually amounts to little.

Just before Biden’s visit, US envoy George Mitchell had been in the region to orchestrate the proximity talks. It seemed a final hurdle had been removed when the Arab League gave diplomatic cover to PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to join the talks for a limited period of four months. Just then Israel dropped the latest settlement bombshell blowing the whole thing up.

The proximity talks device was highly controversial already. Sceptics pointed out that an additional few months of indirect talks would be of no use when almost two decades of direct negotiations – with ostensibly less hardline Israeli governments – had produced absolutely nothing. The talks were also perceived as blatant American and international capitulation to Israeli intransigence, and yet a desperately needed cover for the total US failure to get Israel to agree to a real settlement freeze as a condition for resuming direct talks. All the misgivings were confirmed by Israel’s announcement of the 1,600 settler homes.

It would have been scandalous for Palestinians – even as weak and compromised as Abbas’ authority – to engage under such conditions. The PA expressed strong objections, demanding that the Israeli plan be withdrawn before returning to the talks. So it seemed it was back to square one.

But this is only part of the story. If the proximity talks blew up, it was at least as much the fault of the US administration itself as it was that of Israel. Let’s recall the real sequence of events. On March 8, just two days before Biden’s visit, Israel announced the construction of an additional 112 units in Beitar Illit settlement near Bethlehem – violating its own self-declared 10-month moratorium outside what it defines as Jerusalem. PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat issued one of his routine statements, but there were no threats by the PA to boycott the talks.

Even worse, the US seemed to provide cover for the Israeli move; State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters then that the Beitar Illit decision “does not violate the moratorium that the Israelis previously announced,” although he allowed that “this is the kind of thing that both sides need to be cautious of as we move ahead with these parallel talks.”

Netanyahu may have been – justifiably – surprised by the strength of the US rhetorical reaction later after the Jerusalem announcement (and that of EU, UN and other international officials who added their own “strong” criticism only after they got an American green light). None of these people ever bothered much about settlement expansion before. Why this one, why now? After all, Israel never told anyone it would freeze settlement construction in what it defines as “greater” Jerusalem!

Despite Netanyahu’s denial that he knew in advance of the announcement, it is clear Israel was sending a message to the peace process chorus. First, that renewed talks would not mean any slow down in colonisation schemes on occupied lands. Second, that Israeli-defined Jerusalem is outside the scope of any negotiations. Third, Netanyahu does not need the talks – for him they are only a cover for colonisation – so he could afford the risk that the talks would be jeopardised knowing full well that the US reaction would be limited at worst to words of criticism.

Netanyahu has nevertheless admitted that it was a miscalculation to announce a major new settlement when Biden was visiting precisely to emphasise US support for Israel. But for him the mistake was only in timing, not in substance. Indeed, despite all the strong American criticism, Netanyahu announced that settlement-building in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank would continue as normal as it has for 43 years. Since 1967, settler roads and settlements, now home to half a million Israeli Jews, have eaten up more than 46 percent of the West Bank.

During the colonisation years which have been constantly accompanied by Israeli aggression, confiscation of territory and additional ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians, the international community showed little or no anger at Israel, other than occasional empty statements of disapproval, and it kept up business as usual.

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation and later the Palestinian Authority, also negotiated year after year with Israel and signed accords and agreements while the land was being openly colonised and the Palestinian people were constantly persecuted and viciously uprooted. Arab states for their part have negotiated and signed peace treaties while the occupation remained firmly in place and the process of settlement building went on.

So if for 43 years there has been continuous occupation accompanied with continuous settlement building while the international community was maintaining a deadly and a cowardly silence, why all the sudden noise over 1,600 additional housing units? It is neither the first project nor will it be the last. And notice that for all its complaints, the United States pointedly did not require Israel to cancel the project. It would never dare do that. Instead within a few days, the US will be pressuring the PA to return to futile negotiations while the settlement construction carries on.

Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations.

The Electronic Intifada  

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