Building Settlements, Not Peace

Jerusalem – Had Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu been a devotee of Robert Burns, he would now be tearing up the pessimistic view of the legendary Scottish nationalist poet that even the best made-plans tend to go wrong just when one thinks everything’s going according to what’s planned.

How well-laid his plan was: He had put on the warmest of welcomes for Joe Biden, the U.S. Vice-President, the highest ranking visitor to come to Israel from Washington since Netanyahu and President Barack Obama both took office just over a year ago.

The Prime Minister’s plan: first, to get iron-clad security assurances from the U.S. on how to thwart what Israel perceives as Iran’s calculated bid to secure nuclear weapons; and secondly, to convince Washington that, for all his firm nationalist talk, the planned inauguration of U.S.-mediated “proximity peace talks” sits well with his proclaimed intention to move towards a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Biden seemed to be on the same page.

Under the full glare of the international media, when welcomed by Israel’s President Shimon Peres, he joined the palms of his hands together and declared theatrically, “Like between my hands, there is no space whatever between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.

“We’re determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” he added.

When later he met with Netanyahu, the Vice-President also stressed that the U.S. would stand by anybody who goes the extra-mile for peace. Turning directly to Netanyahu he said he was delighted to have found “it’s your position.”

Enter the Robbie Burns warning.

Unbeknownst to Netanyahu, the wheels of bureaucracy were meanwhile grinding down his best-made plan.

At the very time he and Biden were meeting, a backroom committee from the Israeli Interior Ministry was granting the final rubber stamp approval for the building of 1,600 new apartments in occupied East Jerusalem.

The plan authorised by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee will constitute one of the largest construction projects Israel has launched in Jerusalem in recent years. Spread over 150 acres, it’s slated to include a new trunk road to the northern outskirts of the city, and elaborate public facilities.

Since elected, Netanyahu has consistently promoted the right of Israeli Jews to settle “in any part of Jerusalem” – even in the occupied eastern part of the city, and even in the face of stringent U.S. criticism.

In November, under heavy U.S. pressure, he had announced a 10-month suspension of new building in the West Bank. But Israel considers the whole of Jerusalem as its sovereign territory, and insists that any building restrictions do not apply there for Jewish settlers. Surprise or not, what the Prime Minister’s office called an “ill-timed” and “only a procedural move”, hit Netanyahu hard. During his tête-à-tête with Biden, Netanyahu insisted he had no prior knowledge of the decision to authorise the additional construction. The Prime Minister reportedly told the Vice-President, “No one was seeking to embarrass you or undermine your visit – on the contrary, you are a true friend to Israel.”

In the end, the controversial Israeli move may possibly not scuttle Washington’s determination to proceed with its tentative peace drive.

But it has already seriously soured the display of cordial entente between the U.S. and Israel that Netanyahu and Biden had tried so carefully to cultivate.

Deliberate or not, the housing project row amounts to something close to a humiliation which the Netanyahu government has inflicted on the Obama administration.

The Vice-President was not to be deflected from issuing a stern rebuke: “I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units,” Biden said in his written statement. “The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.”

Moments earlier, from the White House itself, U.S. President Barack Obama’s top spokesman, Robert Gibbs, had also blasted the Israeli building project.

The Palestinians were incensed. They denounced what they called “a deliberate provocation” – Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad going so far as to say the Israeli announcement posed a “great challenge” to restarting the peace talks.

There was also widespread international condemnation.

Then, after Biden had met with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah on Wednesday (and issued another strong public condemnation of Israel) the Palestinian Authority said that starting the indirect talks with Israel would be “very difficult” if Israel insisted on going ahead with the plan to build more homes on occupied land.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat said they had “demanded that the Americans help us revoke this order.

“If one side, in our judgment, is not living up to our expectations, we will make our concerns clear and we will act accordingly,” said a U.S. document prior to the beginning of the proximity talks.

For the time being, Netanyahu may choose to take solace in the notion that condemnation and outrage fall short of out-and-out blame.

But, should the Israeli leader not be prepared to rescind, or at least suspend, the housing scheme decision, the blame game may well begin earlier than anticipated – especially if the Palestinians stand firm and the talks do not get under way at all.

In any event, so pessimistic are both Israelis and Palestinians about the fate of the talks that already what worries them most is who will get the blame should the talks eventually fail. That issue of which side the U.S. would blame, should that happen, is likely to hover all the while over the planned four months of talks.

And, that could really cause Netanyahu’s long-term plans to go awry.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said publicly that if the talks break down, and the U.S. deems Israel responsible for that failure, then Washington should be ready to back the Palestinians’ right to declare their own independent state – with or without Israeli agreement.

At his joint press conferences with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Biden said that the U.S. would stand behind those who take risks for peace.

But, he also made plain that the U.S. is entering the new talks with a much tougher attitude to the whole purpose of peacemaking than in the past.

And, when Biden met Netanyahu privately, he delivered an ominous addendum: “Whoever risks the success of the peace talks will have to be accountable to the U.S. for doing so,” the Israeli leader was reportedly told.

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