Ten months ago Israel agreed to a U.S. request (Washington never demands) for a freeze in new settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. What they got wasn’t really a freeze, more a slight cooling. They called it a moratorium. And that moratorium expired Sunday night. The press coverage was breathless, reporting every phone call between the various parties. Pundits analyzed the significance of which leaders were talking from which cities, who flew home and who remained in Washington. One interviewer asked me if it was important that Secretary of State Clinton had called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas just before the deadline. (It wasn’t.)
At the end of the day, the talks will almost certainly continue with or without a settlement freeze – but does that really matter?
Unfortunately, as long as these talks continue in their current framework – accepting as legitimate the vast disparity of power between Israel and the Palestinians, and acting as if the two sides, occupying power and occupied population, somehow come to the table as equals – the answer is no. As long as the U.S. defines its “honest broker” role as providing unlimited financial, military, diplomatic and political support for Israel while offering only face-saving to the Palestinian leaders, and as long as the talks are not based on the requirements of international law – the answer will be no.
It doesn’t matter whether this particular round of talks goes forward or not. (The last high-profile U.S.-brokered talks involving Prime Minister Netanyahu and leading to an agreement that was never implemented, were negotiated at Maryland’s Wye River in 1998 with PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat – and it wasn’t called the “Wye Bother” summit for nothing.)
The 10-month settlement moratorium that just ended was filled with loopholes: it only included new housing starts. It allowed continued building of many infrastructure projects, of housing that had already been approved, of anything that had already started – and it never applied to occupied Arab East Jerusalem. The “compromise” that will likely emerge in coming days will talk about putting off the question of settlements, and starting instead with borders – ostensibly an “easier” issue. It means that the first agreement will be on how much West Bank land – the 22 percent left of historic Palestine – the Palestinians must give up to official Israeli annexation before they can even talk about settlements. And it means that in the meantime, settlement expansion throughout Arab East Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank continues without restriction.
That’s the consequence of the U.S. approach to these peace talks: treat the two parties as if they were equals. Make both sides compromise. Make both sides recognize the legitimacy of the other’s position. All fine if the conflict is a border dispute between sovereign states. But when one side is an occupied people, dispossessed and divided, and the other side, the Occupying Power, is the strongest military force in the region and backed unqualifiedly by the most powerful country in the world, the call for “both sides” to “compromise” is a call for victory for the powerful, and defeat for the rights of the weaker side.
Ultimately, human rights and international law are at stake here. And the U.S. position has largely abandoned both.
As we have seen so many times before, if the talks are not grounded in international law and justice, there will be no peace. There may be the illusion of “the end of conflict” and a “Palestinian state” agreed to by leaders, but without real change on the ground. The “state” will be made up of non-contiguous Bantustan-like parcels of land, that taken together, amount to about 60 percent of the West Bank. The Apartheid Wall will become part of the de facto “border,” meaning that the vast majority of Palestinian water resources (and about 10 percent of the land) remain under Israeli control. Gaza will remain besieged with Israel controlling coastal water and the skies above as well as all borders and entry and exit of all people and goods. And Israel will still control West Bank border crossings, air space and any link to Gaza. Jerusalem will remain under Israel sovereignty, with small pockets of Arab East Jerusalem and parts of the Old City provided with special status, but without Palestinian sovereignty. Palestinian refugees will be denied their legal right to return and compensation, and Palestinian citizens of Israel will continue to live under an officially discriminatory political system.
In fact, as my colleague Nadia Hijab has described, “success” of the current approach to negotiations could be far more dangerous than failure. If the current talks did succeed, she wrote, “next year is likely to see a grand ceremony where Palestinian leaders will sign away the right of return and other Palestinian rights in an agreement that would change little on the ground. …If the rest of the world sees that the government of ‘Palestine’ is satisfied with international recognition and a U.N. seat, they will be happy to move on to other problems leaving the Palestinians at Israel’s mercy. Such a scenario could sound a death-knell for Palestinian human rights. …A ‘peace agreement’ would end the applicability of international law to the resolution of the conflict; permanently fragment the Palestinian people; and demobilize Arab and international solidarity.”
We continue to hear how hard U.S. officials are trying, how President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton and Special Envoy George Mitchell and their teams are working the phones and shuttling between the Israeli and Palestinian sides looking for a way out. I have no doubt they are working very hard – there is no doubt they are eager, perhaps even desperate – to accomplish something that can be called a foreign policy victory. And not only because of the midterm elections. At this moment of rising violence in still-occupied Iraq, growing recognition of the abject failure in Afghanistan, rising international anger at U.S. expanding military assaults in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and elsewhere…even an announcement that low-level talks may continue would be welcome.
But however desperate they are, there is one thing they haven’t tried. No one in the Obama administration has said the words “hold Israel accountable.” No one in the Obama administration has said to Prime Minister Netanyahu, “the settlements are illegal. All of them. And you need to stop building them and start removing them. All of them. And until you do, you can say goodbye to the $30 billion George Bush promised you that we agreed to pay. We’ll use that money instead to create 600,000 new green jobs here in the U.S. And until you do, you can say goodbye to our diplomatic protection in the UN, so your violations of international law will be sent to be heard in the International Criminal Court. And until you do, you can say goodbye to our defense of your undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal, so you will face a global demand that you sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and get rid of your nukes.”
Bibi Netanyahu thinks his government could fall if he announces a settlement freeze. If he doesn’t hear President Obama telling him there will be consequences, that he will pay a price if he doesn’t freeze the settlements, why should he take that risk? If he heard the word accountability, if he believed Israel really could lose its military aid and its diplomatic protection, his calculations would be significantly different. His government – not to mention the Israeli people – would demand something very different. But if his Washington sponsor won’t take a political risk, why should anyone expect Netanyahu to do so?