Sunday, 12 December 2010

Peace talks and the settlement freeze

It has been widely reported that Israel's refusal to sign up to another freeze on settlement building has frozen not the settlements, but the latest round of US-sponsored direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). I support the peace talks and I would be more than happy if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu signed Israel up to another settlement freeze. Israeli Opposition Leader Tsipi Livni is right to say that Israel "can't rally the world by constantly saying no. We need to say 'Yes' from time to time too". But here are a few observations. One is that there was a settlement freeze for several months until recently, but PA President Abbas still refused direct talks for most of that period. If an Israeli settlement freeze is the President's main pre-condition for talks, then why, when that pre-condition was in place, did he refuse talks for so long?

It's worth noting also that Mr Netanyahu, for all his faults, has offered to extend the settlement freeze and has been rebuffed by President Abbas. Also, most Israeli/Palestinian peace proposals envisage 80% of the settlers staying put in settlement blocs on or near Israel's pre-1967 border with the West Bank. In return for these settlement blocs becoming part of Israel, the Israelis would cede other territory from 'Israel proper' to the Palestinians, leaving the new Palestinian state with 97% of the West Bank. So, much of the settlement building is happening in places which, under a peace deal, would be included in Israel anyway - so is it really so terrible for new homes to be built and extended in those places? It's not as if new settlements are currently being constructed; what's being talked about is construction work in existing homes in settlements that will eventually be assigned to Israel anyway.

As to President Abbas's demand that the settlement freeze be extended to include not only the West Bank, but also East Jerusalem - well, the most recent freeze did not include East Jerusalem, but Mr Abbas did not allow that to stop him from talking to Israel. Why should that change now? Is the President really saying that another West Bank settlement freeze (excluding East Jerusalem, as the last one did) would not be enough to persuade him back to the negotiating table for direct talks?

Don't get me wrong - I think that President Abbas should talk to the Israelis without first insisting on a settlement freeze; he has, after all, undertaken such talks many times before and has come tantalisingly close to achieving a deal. One has to hope that the tone of the recent meeting of the Revolutionary Council of President Abbas' own Fatah movement is not indicative of the President's thinking with regard to the peace process, amid worrying signs regarding the current state of Palestinian public opinion.

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