As we approach the forthcoming summit in Washington intended to address the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I cannot help but wonder whether its timing has more to do with American politics than with any genuine momentum in the peace process.
Whatever the case, it is, of course, true that the 10-month moratorium on construction on the West Bank to which Israel agreed last November is due to come to an end, and Abu Mazen has already made it abundantly clear that any resumption of building in the settlements would bring direct negotiations to a halt.
The term “settlements” tends to be used indiscriminately to refer to any building by Israel beyond the 1949 armistice lines. However, most Israelis would draw a clear distinction between the Jerusalem suburbs of Gilo and French Hill, and settlements such as Yitzhar located on the West Bank near Shechem. Towns, such as Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim, would, in all likelihood, remain part of Israel under any peace agreement, and many Israelis feel that building should be allowed to continue there to meet natural growth needs.
Isaac Herzog, Minister of Welfare and Social Services, is reported as having stated recently that “Netanyahu’s peace intentions may surprise Abbas.” However, this remark more likely reflects his need to justify Labour’s continued participation in Netanyahu’s right-wing government rather than any major developments on the Israeli political front.
Abu Mazen did not want to go to Washington. Not only are the Palestinians fractured among themselves and between those living on the West Bank and those in the Gaza Strip, but his own authority is sufficiently uncertain that he chose not to hold local council elections that should have taken place no later than January 2009. He does not have the stature or enjoy the authority of Yassir Arafat, and any concessions to Israel on his part would almost inevitably lead to his downfall.
In spite of Herzog’s remark, it is difficult to conceive of Prime Minister Netanyahu making the kind of concessions that would be needed to breathe new life into the moribund peace negotiations. He is the prisoner of a right-wing government whose political agenda is largely determined by Lieberman’s “Yisrael Beiteinu” party and Shas, whose spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, expressed the hope this past weekend that “Abu Mazen and all of the Palestinians would die (from the plague).”
Not that the Palestinians themselves are prepared to compromise. A poll conducted earlier this year by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that, by a margin of 82% to 13%, Palestinians oppose waiving the ‘right of return’ in exchange for financial compensation for refugees and their descendants.
Furthermore, there are external forces, especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds, that will attempt to sabotage any hope of peace, regardless of the terms.
Therefore, as we approach a new year, there is sadly little cause for optimism. It is true that the West Bank economy is booming, and the removal of numerous road blocks by the IDF has eased the lives of many Palestinians. Nevertheless, despite these improvements, the Palestinians are unlikely to be in the mood for negotiations, if Israel resumes building in the settlements and in Jerusalem.
However, the question of who builds what and where is only a smoke screen. The real problem is that neither Israel nor the Palestinians are blessed with leaders of the stature of Begin and Sadat, who were prepared to set aside all the obstacles and take that leap that made peace between Israel and Egypt possible.
Granted, all that you say is correct. Still, I have to wonder why Israel would even consider once again building is questionable areas until such time as the fate of those areas are determined through negotiations with the Palestinians. To recommence building in those areas is simply to give the Palestinians an excuse to kill the peace process. That would seem to play right into their hands. I have to question whether one can honestly talk about meeting “natural growth needs” in any area – within or outside of Israel. Growth can be nice and it can be desirable, but I am not convinced that it is or can be inherently “natural” or necessary; especially when the price of such growth could be the possibility of peace itself. To resume such construction because the moratorium on it has come to an end may be technically permitted, but it an exercise in massive short sightedness, if not an intentional sabotaging of the prospects for a negotiated peace.
Thank you for your mail. My response must, I am afraid, be shorter than the issue you raise merits. I am in Berlin right now and using the PC in the lobby!
Israel.s population is growing at a phenomenal rate. You only have to drive around and look at the number of new apartment blocks going up to realise that population growth is a significant factor in Israel. Most families have 3 children and the figure in religious families, never mind charedi families, is much higher, Therefore, there is a constant need for more housing, more schools, more kindergartens and all the other public facilities. Come to my town. You will see cranes all over the place. Now those needs are not confined to Israelis living within the 1949 armistice lines and are also not confined to Jews, which is why the issue of illegal building, not only by settlers but also by Arab citizens of Israel and particularly of Jerusalem, is a recurring problem. Now I agree that Mahmoud Abbas can use this issue as an excuse to cut off negotiations, but let’s remember that it is an excuse. Israel has not been building over the Green Line for the past 10 months, but that has not encouraged him to engage in face to face negotiations. My own take is that he will use any excuse not to make progress, because making a deal with Israel is quite literally more than his life is worth.
Thank you, Mickey, for your reply to my comment.
Without wishing to rehash this whole matter, I do have two reflections upon the content of your reply:
1) You speak about the burgeoning population of Israel as a legitimate reason for continuing to build beyond the Green Line. That type of argumentation, taken to its logical conclusion precludes the possibility of a two-state solution, for Israel will always require the “lebensraum” (sounds scary) to accommodate its population. Therefore no territory will be held as untouchable for this expansion. A two-state solution, by definition, means that the Palestinians will have their own sovereign state which will constitute territory, no longer considered as part of the State of Israel, in which the Israelis will not be permitted to build housing. In short, it will be drawing a line beyond which the Israelis cannot build. If that is ever to be accomplished, then the Israelis have to start exercising such self-restraint on building BEFORE they reach agreement with the Palestinians, for if they do not, then no agreement will ever be reached.
2) You have stated: “Israel has not been building over the Green Line for the past 10 months, but that has not encouraged him to engage in face to face negotiations.” I cannot understand how you can make such a statement in the face of the fact that after two years of having no direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, both parties are just about to engage in such talks in Washington. While there are many factors which have pushed Abu Mazan to the negotiating table, one cannot simply disregard Israel’s moratorium on building as one of them.
With every good wish,
Henry Jay Karp
Your comment about “Lebensraum” was particularly offensive to me as an Israeli having just come back to my hotel after visiting the Holocaust memorial here in Berlin, Germany. When I wrote about the need to provide accommodation for growing families, I meant within existing suburbs and towns such as
Ma’aleh Adumim and Gilo. I really don’t see why that should preclude the possibility of a two-state solution, as you suggest, since it has been recognized ever since the Camp David accords that there would be minor territorials changes to compensate the Palestinians for those areas that are now effectively part of Israel.
Surely you are not suggesting that Israel should vacate French Hill and Ariel. If you are, then I think your expectation is totally unrealistic. However, once again, these are matters for negotiation, and the demand to refrain from building within places like Gilo or Ariel should not be a pre-condition for sitting down to talk. People who really want a state of their own, like the Zionists in 1947, don’t impose conditions, but should be interested in moving talks ahead as fast as possible rather than stalling.
I think that the issue is WHERE there is limited construction. Construction that expands the borders of a settlement or expands Jewish neighborhoods while taking territory away from Palestinian cities or from areas likely to be necessarily handed over in a peace agreement is DIFFERENT than construction WITHIN the existing boundaries of those settlements or neighborhoods. The former is indeed problematic for the peace process. The latter should not be, certainly in the areas that will remain under Israeli control, but even in others. May be a waste of resources to be abandoned later, but it SHOULDN’T impact negotiations because it makes little substantive difference to the Palestinians. Meanwhile, it is LIKELY that the Palestinians will insist on a moratorium that includes most of Jerusalem, including the Jewish neighborhoods. Here there is no good answer. Life in the suburbs of Jerusalem should not be brought to a halt in order to allow the Palestinian side to see it halt. These construction stoppages must be seen as concessions that are part of negotiations, not simply as concessions in order to have negotiations. There must be a reasonable hope of progress toward peace for either side to make real concessions. The Palestinians, at this point, are demanding real and substantial concessions without offering anything other than the opportunity to hear the word “No” in person.
In my mind, Abbas cannot possibly concede what he must for Israel to perceive this process as having real possibilities. I do not believe that the Palestinians are going to perceive what Netanyahu may offer as meeting their goals in any way. If anything, the ability of Israel to trust the PA as a whole has dramatically weakened since 2005, even though security cooperation has improved equally dramatically. They have a common enemy in Hamas, which the PA cannot defeat and Israel is not allowed to defeat by the US, UN, and EU. Israel cannot deal with Abbas as if he speaks for the people of Gaza. In fact, as there has been no free election at all, it cannot really act as if he is representative of the Palestinian people, but it is being forced to do so by the US, UN, and EU.
If the world wants the peace process to go anywhere, the US and EU must say that under no circumstances will Israel be forced to annex the population of the West Bank should talks fail. That the US and EU will reject any overture recognizing Palestinian claims to citizenship in a nation that they seek to destroy, provided Israel maintains the possibility of creating a separate Palestinian state. Obviously THIS allows for some criticism of Israel, namely is it continuing to allow for such a creation because of settlement expansion? But here the answer is that as long as settlements can be abandoned, there is such a possibility.That would give the Palestinians the options of either dealing with a terrible status quo or pursuing the best deal they can for their own state instead of continually threatening to destroy Israel should it fail to agree to national suicide.
Dear Mickey & David,
Once again, thank you for your prompt replies.
Mickey, I am sorry that you found my remark about “lebensraum” to be offensive. I admit that I said it to be purposefully shocking. I said it so as to shake you into rereading what you had written about the profound need for Israel to resume construction in order to accommodate its burgeoning population. That the population is growing at such a significant rate should not be considered as legitimate justification to resume housing construction in areas that are being disputed by the Palestinians. Indeed, as someone who has been teaching courses on the Holocaust at a university level since 1986, and who has participated in academic Holocaust study seminars at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, I have to tell you that when I hear someone justify the resumption of Israeli construction in desputed areas, after Israel has instituted a moratorium on such construction in order to facilitate the peace process, I have to tell you that I find such justification as deeply troubling, indeed offensive, expressly because it sounds so similar to the Nazi use of the principle of “lebensraum” as a justification for their expansionist policies.
Both of you, David, you stated, “I think that the issue is WHERE there is limited construction.” That is precisely the point. The “where” in question here are such areas, the future of which has not yet been resolved. It is in those areas that there has been the moratorium on building which is about to expire. And now, since Israel is entering once again into direct negotiations with the Palestinians, and a resolution as to the future of those areas may be determined as a result of those negotiations, it is not only unwise but downright provocative and disruptive to the peace process that Israel even consider resuming construction in those areas until either the matter is settled or the peace process collapses.
If your contention is that Israel is incapable of waiting until boundary issues with the Palestinians are resolved before resuming construction in contested areas, then the current attempts at a peace process – or any peace process for that matter – is doomed to failure. Such failure will be due as much to Israeli intransigence and it will be to Palestinian intransigence.
The bottom line here – as I see it – is that to refuse to extend this moratorium on construction while negotiations are in progress is to do nothing less than to condemn a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based upon a two-state solution. If we believe in a two-state solution, then we MUST give it the opportunity to work itself out.
Henry Jay Karp
Henry, I think we’re talking apples and oranges here. The problem is that the current moratorium prevents construction WITHIN existing settlements as well as their expansion. If it ONLY prevented their expansion, it might make sense to continue the moratorium even in the face of significant resistance under the assumption that the expansion would potentially make peace more difficult. However, the current moratorium prevents inhabitants of these areas from adding on to their existing homes or building on vacant lots between existing homes. It is a total ban, not just a ban on expansion.
The idea that continued construction should be prevented in order for negotiations to occur should never have been substantiated by either the US or EU. The correct idea should have been to promote negotiations as a means of stopping the expansion of the settlements in the hope of ultimately creating a Palestinian state. What has happened instead is that the Palestinians are now using preconditions for negotiations as a means to alter the status quo without negotiations instead of through negotiations.
David, be that as it may, whether right or wrong, Israel agreed to the terms of the moratorium which does include a restraint from further building WITHIN existing settlements. That Israel should have negotiated with the US and the EU to restrict the moratorium to matters of expansion is water over the dam. That was in the past. This is the present. Now that this particular precedent has been set, Israel will need to live with it. She agreed to it as part of the incentive package to bring the Palestinians to the table. If she reneges on it now, that will only serve as a disincentive. If as a result, the Palestinians withdraw from the peace process, while it will be their choice to do so, still Israel will carry a major responsibility for having undermined the program. That will not just be a “perceived” responsibility, or one attributed to Israel for propaganda purposes. Rather, it will be an actual responsibility.
I feel that if we who are supporters of “We Are for Israel” take a position of endorsing an Israeli refusal to maintain the terms of the moratorium while peace negotiations are actively in progress, then we will have begun to stray from our founding principles. We came together – originally as Rabbis for Israel – because we could not find a comfortable home within the major Israel advocacy groups. We found that we were not satisfied with AIPAC’s approach of indiscriminately supporting Israel no matter what she does, nor were satisfied with J Street’s strong tendancies to assume that Israel is in the wrong, no matter what she does. We wanted to find a “home” in which we could definitely express our fundamental support of Israel and for a two-state solution, strive to see that Israel is given a fair shake in the public eye, yet still feel capable and ready to caution Israel against taking missteps and calling her to account when she takes them. From where I sit, I see that the abandoning the terms of the moratorium precisely when the Israelis and the Palestinians are sitting together at the negotiating table would be one of those missteps which we need to lovingly caution Israel against taking. If instead we take the position of “Sure. Go ahead. Do what you want. We’re behind you no matter what”, then we might as well just join AIPAC and close up our shop.
Believe me, if continuing with the moratorium is going to make the difference, then I agree that it is worth doing. Only time will tell whether it will help. My belief is that the major issue is that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are not on the same page and that Mahmoud Abbas will not go it alone.
In any event, please don’t use the term “Lebensraum”. Comparing the Israelis to the Nazis by using their terminology is really offensive, and there is really no comparison between Nazi transports and Israeli construction, even if the latter might be unwise.