Seconds before the bell rings in a professional boxing match, the two contenders meet in the center of the ring and touch gloves. Imagine what would happen if one of them used that brief opportunity of goodwill to headbutt the other. Everyone would call foul and the referee would stop the fight, possibly penalizing the aggressor.
Except that seems to be pretty much what Israel has done in the lead up to U.S.-brokered negotiations. While it’s true that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dropped his demand for a freeze in Israeli settlement construction as a precondition for talks, Israel’s announcement on Sunday that it’s constructing more than 1,000 new housing units in Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Palestinians have reacted angrily to Israel’s approval of nearly 1,200 new Jewish settlement homes, just days before peace talks are set to resume.
Palestinian negotiators said the approval cast doubt on Israel’s sincerity in the peace process.
…Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayeh said Israel aimed “to destroy the basis of the solution called for by the international community, which aims to establish a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders”.
He accused Israel of trying to “determine the negotiations in whichever way suits it best”.
Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters: “If the Israeli government believes that every week they’re going to cross a red line by settlement activity, if they go with this behaviour, what they’re advertising is the unsustainability of the negotiations.”
PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi told the BBC: “We believe that Israel is deliberately sending a message to the US, to the rest of the world that regardless of any attempt at launching negotiations, ‘we are going to press ahead with stealing more land, building more settlements and destroying the two-state-solution’.
“This is an extremely dangerous policy, and if left unchecked it certainly would lead to greater conflict and the destruction of all chances of peace.”
The political use of settlement construction here is rather obvious. Israel has used settlement construction in politically motivated ways before. Back in 2010, after Obama had publicly called for a freeze in settlements, Israel unveiled plans for new settlements timed just perfectly for a special visit by Vice President Joe Biden. The move was widely seen as a slight at the U.S.
And those Palestinian representatives quoted above aren’t really speculating about Israel’s intentions. As I noted several weeks ago, citing this Brent E. Sasley piece at Foreign Policy which details the rise to political power of a gang of Israeli leaders explicitly supportive of annexation and openly opposed to a Palestinian state:
…a number of more moderate individuals were dumped and several hardline annexationists were promoted to higher positions on the electoral slate — all but guaranteeing them election to the Knesset and a place in government. Among them, Danny Danon has declared, “I will use my strength and influence to convince as many people as I can within the party…that a Palestinian state is bad news for Israel.” Tzipi Hotovely wrote last year that “the territories of Judea and Samaria [West Bank] are mostly uninhabited…90% of the territory is empty,” which facilitates “the complete application of Israeli law over Judea and Samaria.” Ze’ev Elkin believes in a single state between the river and the sea under Israeli sovereignty.
Yisrael Beiteinu has long been a little more far right; its autocratic leader, Avigdor Lieberman, lives in a West Bank settlement. Lieberman hates Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, calling him “the main and greatest obstacle to peace,” and mistrusts the Palestinians. He would tolerate a rump Palestinian state in the West Bank, but intends on annexing most of it for Israel. His firstreaction to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement on the renewal of talks was that negotiations won’t be conducted on the basis of the 1967 lines, nor would he agree to any settlement freeze. He added, for good measure, that anyway, “Mahmoud Abbas does not represent the people of Gaza or Judea and Samaria [the West Bank].”
The coalition includes Jewish Home, a recent amalgamation of religious Zionist parties, with some hardline secular nationalist support. Its leader, Naftali Bennett, is adamantly opposed to the withdrawal of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank; he intends to annex at least all of Area C and control the rest of the territory. Like Lieberman, he insists that negotiating on the basis of the Green Line or freezing settlement building aren’t options; he said that building settlements “brings life.” And he’s threatened to bring the government down if talks get serious. His ministers have reacted even more aggressively: Minister of Housing Uri Ariel called freezing settlements “an immoral and non-Jewish act.”
This latest Israeli snub is a harbinger of things to come: so long as U.S. support is maintained, Israel will oppose substantive negotiations and a Palestinian state.