Shortsighted Thinking on Israeli Settlements
PALESTINE - ISRAEL, 19 Aug 2013
There was a certain internal political logic to two announcements made by the Israeli government, just days before Wednesday’s [14 Aug 2013] scheduled resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians. Early Monday [12 Aug 2013], 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? Mr. Kerry’s timetable may be overoptimistic, but no two-state solution can ever be reached if Israel expands its settlements on territory that will eventually become part of a Palestinian state. True, they can be removed, as they were when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005. But every increase in the settlement population expands the already politically powerful block of settler voters who will resist removal.
Knowing this, many Israelis also expressed dismay at the settlement announcement. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s finance minister and coalition partner, Yair Lapid, rightly complained that it would “needlessly challenge the Americans” and “poke sticks in the wheels of peace talks.” 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.
No one is under any illusions that reaching a peace agreement will be easy. Both sides must summon the courage to tackle extremely sensitive issues, like settlements. Mr. Netanyahu can show his by freezing the construction bids before any actual building begins.
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