For 15 years and more, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas conducted peace talks with Israel in the absence of a freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Now, it appears as likely as not that his newborn negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu -- and their goal of agreement on a Palestinian state within a year -- will expire because of Abbas's refusal to talk in the absence of such a freeze.
The Palestinian president's stand has frustrated a lot of people -- including his own prime minister, Salaam Fayyad, and the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, both of whom have said that the settlement issue should not be an obstacle to the negotiations. At a recent dinner in Washington, Fayyad pointed out that any building in the settlements during the next year would have no effect on the outcome of the talks or the future Palestinian state.
So why does Abbas stubbornly persist in his self-defeating position? In an interview with Israeli television Sunday night, he offered a remarkably candid explanation: "When Obama came to power, he is the one who announced that settlement activity must be stopped," he said. "If America says it and Europe says it and the whole world says it, you want me not to say it?"
The statement confirmed something that many Mideast watchers have suspected for a long time: that the settlement impasse originated not with Netanyahu or Abbas, but with Obama -- who by insisting on an Israeli freeze has created a near-insuperable obstacle to the peace process he is trying to promote.
This actually understates how stupid and counterproductive the Obama administration's policy toward settlement construction has been. There might have been a way to finesse the settlement issue, along the lines that Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine has suggested:
This suggests the usefulness of an informal understanding, enforced by the US, that Israel can build modestly in "consensus areas" generally understood to be the likely subject of a land swap between Israel and a new Palestinian state. However, Israel must not engage in significant new land expropriation in the West Bank, incursions into Palestinian neighborhoods of occupied East Jerusalem, or building in the "E-1 corridor" that would cut Jerusalem off from the West Bank.
But the White House made this sort of compromise untenable back in March by throwing a hissy fit over housing construction in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood just across the Green Line that is very much a 'consensus area' that will never be part of a Palestinian state. To be sure, Israel blundered in allowing the approval of new construction to coincide with a visit by Vice President Biden, but Biden's reaction was so over-the-top that it made it extemely difficult for Abbas to entertain a compromise along the lines that Ibish proposes -- the Palestinian president can't be less pro-Palestinian than the Americans, after all.
If the White House wanted to intelligently apply pressure regarding settlements, they might focus in on genuinely problematic developments, like the foolish plan to convert a hotel in the heavily Palestinian east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah into apartments for Jewish families, and meanwhile ignore developments in Jewish neighborhoods like Ramat Shlomo, or Ramot and Pisgat Zeev (despite media convention, by the way, none of those Jewish neighborhoods are in "east Jerusalem" in any coherent sense of the phrase -- they are north and northwest of the city center). But this would require a subtle understanding of the issues in play that this administration seems to lack.
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