Construction Freeze Extended; Netanyahu Says Peace a Priority

Settlers rejoice today as the extremist minority wins again

At least that is what the logical headline would say.  Reality, however, rarely follows in the footsteps of logic.  Today, Sunday September 26, marks the end of the settlement freeze in the Palestinian territories, settlers and pro-settler politicians held a rally in the West Bank settlement of Revava in an attempt to put on display the settlers inability or unwillingness for compromise.

Likud party member Danny Danon and Yesha Council (representing the settler movement) leader Danny Dayon both express jubilation over the continuation of settlement construction on Palestinian land, with Dayon saying that the freeze was “a mistake and [the government should] never do it again.” For those looking for a silver lining, the best Israeli PM Netanyahu could muster was a message to the settler leaders urging the celebrations to not be provocative, considering the fragility of the peace talks.

The prime minister calls on the residents in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and the political parties to show restraint and responsibility today and in the future exactly as they showed restraint and responsibility throughout the months of the freeze.

But, let’s not try to fool ourselves into thinking that the settlers displayed any type of restraint during the construction freeze.  While the Israeli government deserves some credit for initially agreeing to the freeze and the Palestinians should be (somewhat) condemned for not initiating talks sooner,* Israel’s construction freeze only tempered the construction on confiscated land, instead of freezing it completely.  In addition to Peace Now reporting that the settlement freeze merely slowed settlement construction, AP reports that the number of illegal settlement homes constructed declined a whopping 10% during the life of the construction ban.  Settlers, meanwhile, increased the number of terrorist attacks on Palestinian civilians in response to the Israeli ‘freeze.’

[tweetmeme] Although Palestinian President Abbas had continually promised to walk out of talks if the freeze was not extended, it seems as though he is trying to politically cover himself in order to continue talks despite the settler construction.  Apparently, the steadfast Abbas has delegated the responsibility to decided whether or not to continue talks to the Arab League.  Considering the pressure that the US administration is likely to put on the leaders in the Arab League (it’s easier and more effective than pressuring Israel), my guess would be that Abbas will be back to the negotiating table, claiming that he held strong in the face of Israeli pressure.

As for international commentary on the historic failure of Abbas and Obama, there seems to be little.  Foreign Policy Magazine’s blog had a small article on the decision to not extend the freeze, with the typically insightful Blake Hounshell saying:

[Netanyahu’s] coalition remains intact, and he’s proven that the United States, with all its might and power, can’t push tiny Israel around (at least, not before the midterm elections). Barack Obama took a huge risk calling on Israel to extend the moratorium at the U.N. Thursday, and now he looks ineffectual and weak.

This is a particularly weak statement, considering Obama has time and again proved himself to be ‘ineffectual and weak’ when facing Netanyahu.  We all remember Obama’s inability to follow up on his rhetorically moving Cairo speech last year, as well as the entire Biden-Construction debacle.  If Hounshell truly thought that Obama would have been able to push Netanyahu around in a third-time’s-the-charm mindset, he was only fooling himself.  Anyone following these talks knows that an extension of the freeze would not have been due to President Obama, but rather Netanyahu’s desire to make peace with the Palestinians.

To his credit, Hounshell does say:

In the end, though, this isn’t supposed to be about winners and losers. If Netanyahu is serious about peace — and it remains an open question whether he is — he’ll have to make painful concessions that probably will rip his government apart. There are at least 60,000 settlers who will have to leave their homes in the event of a peace deal, according to the estimates I’ve seen. The last time settlers were uprooted, in Gaza, it took several thousand Israeli troops to evict them.

If Netanyahu is intending to make peace with the Palestinians, he will need to make tough concessions.  Furthermore, such concessions will involve dropping some of the extremists in his coalition (here’s looking at you Lieberman) and bringing in the less-rightist parties.

The next week will be billed as very interesting as the world waits to see if Abbas will walk away from talks as he promised or simply return to Netanyahu with strong words and little action.  Ultimately, the rallies held by settlers and the continuation of illegal construction should not be surprising.  Palestinians shouldn’t be surprised either when Abbas returns to Jerusalem to drink tea with Netanyahu as settlers continue to expand settlements and eat up what is left of Palestinian land.  Reigning in the settlers was a good idea, but mix Obama’s inability to push Israel to do anything, Abbas’ lack of spine and Netanyahu’s true intentions and it is clear that the settler minority in Israel (in Palestine?) is running the show.

*Palestinian negotiators were holding out for a more promising beginning to negotiations after US President Obama called for a full and complete construction freeze, including East Jerusalem as well as strict terms of reference for the talks – something that the UN, EU, the Middle East Quartet and generally the entire international community minus the US was pushing for.  Considering that there were no more agreements between Israel and Palestine added between the start of the freeze and the start of negotiation (thanks, generally, the America’s inability to pressure Israel) Palestinians should be kicking themselves for not starting talks sooner.

Photo from San Francisco Sentinel

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