Is Netanyahu to Blame?
Is Binjamin Netanhayu to blame for the termination of the latesy version of the Israel-Palestininian peace process?The answer – to get right to the bottom line – of course he is. But not in the way and for the reasons his die hard legions of critics think. He is to blame for not being willing to make a deal on terms Abbas might now accept. Just as Abbas can be blamed because he is not willing to make a deal on terms Netanyahu would accept, Netanyahu is not willing to make a deal on Abbas’ terms.
Those terms used to involve the crucial issue of the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. But Abbas has retreated from his stubborn insistence on that issue. The key issue separating the two parties is Jerusalem – in the case of Netanyahu, both the old city and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu clings to the idea of a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty just as strongly as Abbas once clung to the principle of the right of return of the refugees. A formula has been developed to finesse the latter. No formula has been developed to finesse the issue of Jerusalem because it is not a matter of finesse.
But, as my friend Michael Marrus keeps repeating to me, “It’s the settlements,” and, because he is a gentleman, he does not add the word “Stupid!”. I answer, “Yes and No.” It is the settlements insofar as Israel under Netanyahu has continued to build settlements – and not only the 700 units in Gilo in Jerusalem which will, without a doubt, remain as much a part of Israel as French Hill, also built across the Green Line. Further, it is the settlements insofar as the Palestinian Authority and the Americans make so much fuss over Israeli settlement activities. But it is not the settlements because that is not the item of negotiations preventing a deal. That item is Jerusalem. As long as the parties are divided on this central issue and a deal remains a chimera, Israel under Netanyahu will continue to build the settlements.
But why? Why continue to build settlement if it provokes the Americans so much and if it feeds the Palestinian propaganda cause so well? Why not freeze future settlements so it becomes abundantly clear to all observers that it is the Palestinians who do not want to make a deal? But that is the wrong way to phrase it. The Palestinians do want to make a deal now, but not on Bibi’s terms. But they were unwilling to make a deal with Olmert or even Barak earlier when each conceded East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. As former U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, reported in her memoirs, No Higher Honor, in 2008 Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when Tzipi Livni was once before in charge of the negotiations, had offered the Palestinian Authority their capital in East Jerusalem. However, the Old City would remain under Israeli administration. Further, Jerusalem would remain united under an Israeli Mayor and a Palestinian deputy mayor. Finally, an international body, to include both Jordan and Saudi Arabia, would serve in an advisory capacity with respect to the holy sites.
In 2011, Abbas conceded that he and Olmert had agreed that Jerusalem would remain united and East Jerusalem would be the capital of Palestine. But they did not agree on the old city. An Arab and a Jewish Jerusalem would be the result – two separate municipalities in two separate states but as a united capital under a joint administration. Further, when Al Jazeera released certain documents that conceded that most of East Jerusalem would remain in Israeli hands, the Palestinian Authority denounced the documents as a pack of lies. That is because the parts of East Jerusalem that would remain Israeli were those settlements built across the Green Line in what were barren hills in the eastern part of Jerusalem. Abbas, however, would not concede surrendering the old city to Israeli authority, especially the Mosque of Omar and the Dome on the Rock.
This was in spite of the fact that Olmert had offered Abbas 94% of the territory in dispute when swaps were taken into consideration and would later up the offer to 97% before he finally left office. There was no deal. The settlements were not the sticking point. Jerusalem was and remains the central blockage in concluding a deal and we have gone backwards from there since. Netanyahu, as far as Jerusalem is concerned, has never made an equivalent offer. Further, he has repeatedly used Abbas’ rejection of that offer – more accurately, failing to respond to the offer – as his argument why Abbas cannot be considered a serious negotiating partner.
Abbas would not then, and has not indicated any change of mind since. He will not concede giving up on claims of sovereignty over the Old City, especially the sites so holy to Islam. So what role do the settlements play? Does Israeli continuation of its settlement activities mean that Netanyahu still holds to the old Likud position opposing the surrender of most of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians? No. There remain, of course, some in Likud who adamantly cling to an insistence on retaining sovereignty over the West Bank. But even Naftali Bennett, leader of the Aish Hatid Party, has agreed to land swaps with the Palestinian Authority. But the areas now occupied by the settlements must not be transferred. And certainly not Jerusalem.
When Bennett addressed the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, he said, “We will never agree to give up a unified Jerusalem.” He warned Netanyahu about the dire consequences of giving up Jerusalem after praying for its return for 2000 years. Though not nearly as severe, ambitious or inflexible as Bennett, this is Netanyahu’s position now. If that is the case, why does Netanyahu continue with such an ambitious settlement program? Why is he not content with what Israel has already taken? As the Americans have observed, the government’s settlement policy is unequivocal, deliberate and unremitting.
US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice (mentioned previously with respect to the Jerusalem issue and the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas) criticized Israel in 2008 when plans were announced to build thousands of more homes in East Jerusalem, specifically 1,300 more homes in Ramat Shlomo. Further, Jerusalem’s city council at the same time unveiled plans to build 40,000 new apartments throughout the city over the next ten years, many if not most in what was East Jerusalem. In 2009, Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State enunciated the position that all settlement activity must stop. When in March 2010, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Israel, to his great embarrassment Israel announced at the time of the visit plans to build 1,600 more homes in East Jerusalem.
Let’s be clear. These homes are not being built in the part of East Jerusalem densely populated by Palestinians but in the barren hills east of the old Green Line within the larger Jerusalem. Further, within the confines of the larger West Bank, last year Israel declared thousands of dunams to be state land. The Civil Administration approved 28,000 dunams as state land available for settlement.
A close examination of those tracts indicates that Israel is focusing not so much on expanding settlements as on thickening the ones they already have and linking up outposts in anticipation of a future land swap. This is especially true of the 3,479 dunams declared as state land adjacent to Ariel that projects far into the West Bank. All the land claimed and planned for settlements is in area C totally under the control of the Israeli government. Further, though there was a de facto construction freeze during the just terminated peace negotiations – though Israel had refused to sign onto such a freeze – plans for 13,850 housing units were initiated in Area C of the West Bank and tenders were prepared.
Note that of the 28,000 dunams made available for settlement, almost 80% fell within the boundaries of existing settlements. Most of the rest was land on which construction had already gone ahead previously. What has been observed is a program of consolidation more than expansion. Israel is preparing for the day when an independent Palestine state is declared on the West Bank, when land swaps will take place and when the settlements are incorporated into Israel proper.
Though I do not agree with the settlement activities outside of Jerusalem, I also do not see the settlements as a key obstacle to a peace agreement. They do, however, more than annoy America and certainly send an erroneous signal that Israel is not serious about an independent Palestinian state along side Israel, but the settlement activity is not what stands in the way of a peace agreement.
Was it the delay in the prisoner release? No, this was simply a pause pending a commitment by the Palestinians to extend the negotiations for nine months. Progress was made in these talks, particularly over the right of return and by making it clear that Netanyahu does accept a two-state solution. But progress was NOT made in defining the precise borders and in what would happen to Jerusalem. The failure of a positive outcome, which most informed observers always saw as a long shot, can be blamed on both Abbas and Netanyahu, but only because their positions on Jerusalem cannot be reconciled, certainly not at this time. The issue is not a lack of will to make a deal, but a lack of will to make a deal that the other party would or could find acceptable.
Were the negotiations worth it? I believe so. The areas of difference are now quite narrow but run very deep. There are many proposals for resolving the Jerusalem issue, and Canadian diplomats have been intimately involved in a task force on developing a creative answer. From what I have heard of the plan, it will not be acceptable to either party even though it is a rational compromise.
What can be done in the interim to advance peace. Engage in de facto consolidation of what has been agreed upon. In particular, this requires a number of initiatives by Israel to withdraw from Area B and hand over jurisdiction for security to the PA. Eliminate areas of irritation in preparation for implementation of the two-state solution even if the land swaps remain in abeyance and even if no solution can be found to the differences over Jerusalem.