Two weeks after the initial rounds of talks in Washington between Minister Tzipi Livny and the head of the Palestinian negotiation committee Saib Arikat, peace talks are scheduled to resume, this time in Jerusalem. But the validity of the talks is being put into question by the Israeli government’s decision to continue constructing housing projects in the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, despite the fact that these constructions were decried not just by the Palestinians, but also by many governments around the world.
In a letter addressed to the American foreign minister John Kerry, Saib Arikat wrote that without halting the settlement construction it is difficult to see how the talks could “bring progress towards a peace accord”. The letter lays out the construction plans which have been published in recent days, including: 53 housing units for settlers in Jabel Mukaber neighborhood in East Jerusalem, 112 housing units in Shila, 559 units in Talmun, 38 units in Cohav Jacob, 78 units in Galgal in the Jordan Valley, 31 units in Almog north of the Dead Sea and 60 housing units in Alon Shavot in Gush Atzion. Arikat also protested the Israeli government’s decision to declare 91 settlements as “national priority territories’ which will entail them to further fundings and benefits from the state.
There is no doubt that the Palestinian’s reservations are justified. While Netanyahu’s government did agree, half-heartedly, to negotiate with the PLO, it simultaneously creates on the ground the conditions that will undermine any meaning to these negotiations and prevent the fruition of an accord that will create an independent Palestinian State.
It is important to remember that Netanyahu was pushed to return to the negotiations as a result of international pressure, especially from the European Union, but also from the Israeli public: in a survey published on the 22nd of July by the website Mako, 59% of Israelis support the negotiations and 55% support the foundation of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel.
These statistics are surprisingly encouraging considering the years of militaristic discourse from politicians in Israel who prefer “one-sided solutions” over negotiating for peace: “there is no partner” and “we are here, they are there” of Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon’s one-sided disengagement from Gaza, and also Yair Lapid’s “we need to finally get rid of the Palestinians and put up a fence between us”.
Netanyahu, who was pushed into negotiations against his worldview, will soon want the negotiations between his government and the PLO to fail, but without having to take the blame for it. The construction in the settlements serves this goal, since Abu Mazen will be unable to justify the negotiations to his people for long as long as the settlements are being expanded, choking the nearby Palestinian villages.
And indeed, it seems that the PLO leadership is trapped between a rock and a hard place. The composition of the Israeli government is hawkish, and the “Jewish Home” party and the settlers’ majority in the Likud are the ones calling the shots in the governments’ position regarding the Palestinians rather than the “centrist” parties like “Yesh Atid” and “Hatnua”. Therefore, the most likely forecast is that the rightwing government will sabotage any real progress towards a just and sustainable peace accord, and will refuse to acquiescent to the necessary conditions for this accord: return to the borders of the 4th of June 1967, remove all of the settlements, devide Jerusalem into two capitals and solving the refugee problem according to the UN resolutions.
Conversely, if the PLO leadership will refuse to negotiate while the settlements are being expanded, the US- Israel’s strategic ally- will be quick to blame them for rejecting peace. This could end the aspirations of the Palestinian Authority to improve its international position, through its admittance into the UN’s institutions.
The way out of this trap lies through a fundamental shift in the policy of the Israeli government. Israel’s Jewish-Arabic and consistent Left must rally to the struggle for a just peace the wide public which wants a Palestinian state, and utilize this desire to change the composition of the Knesset and the government.