Facing an election in which his most dangerous competition is from the far right, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has adopted a familiar tactic: a flurry of announcements of new construction in Jewish settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The predictable result has been a storm of denunciations by the United States and every other member of the U.N. Security Council, along with dire predictions that the new building would make a negotiated two-state solution ... very difficult to achieve, as British Foreign Secretary William Hague put it.
The criticism is appropriate, in the sense that such unilateral action by Israel, like the unilateral Palestinian initiative to seek statehood recognition in November from the U.N. General Assembly, serves to complicate the negotiations that are the only realistic route to a Mideast peace. But the reaction is also counterproductive because it reinforces two mistaken but widely held notions: that the settlements are the principal obstacle to a deal and that further construction will make a Palestinian state impossible.
Twenty-five years ago, Israel’s government openly aimed at building West Bank settlements that would block a Palestinian state. But that policy changed following the 1993 Oslo accords. Netanyahu’s government, like several before it, has limited building almost entirely to areas that both sides expect Israel to annex through territorial swaps in an eventual settlement. For example, the Jerusalem neighborhoods where new construction was announced last month were conceded to Israel by Palestinian negotiators in 2008.
Overall, the vast majority of the nearly 500,000 settlers in Jerusalem and the West Bank live in areas close to Israel’s 1967 borders. Data compiled by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace show that more than 80 percent of them could be included in Israel if the country annexed just more than 4 percent of the West Bank – less than the 5 percent proposed by President Bill Clinton 12 years ago.
Diplomats were most concerned by Netanyahu’s decision to allow planning and zoning – but not yet construction – in a four-mile strip of territory known as E-1 that lies between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, a settlement with a population of more than 40,000. Palestinians claim that Israeli annexation of the land would cut off their would-be capital in East Jerusalem from the West Bank and block a key north-south route between West Bank towns. Israel wants the land for similar reasons, to prevent Ma’ale Adumim – which will almost certainly be annexed to Israel in any peace deal – from being isolated. Both sides insist that the other can make do with a road corridor.
This is a difficult issue that should be settled at the negotiating table, not by fiat. But Netanyahu’s approval is hardly the almost fatal blow that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described.
The exaggerated rhetoric is offensive at a time when the Security Council is refusing to take action to stop the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians – including many Palestinians – by the Syrian regime. But it is also harmful, because it puts pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to make a freeze on the construction a condition for beginning peace talks. Abbas had hinted that he would finally drop that demand, which has prevented negotiations for most of the past four years, after the General Assembly’s statehood vote. If Security Council members are really interested in progress toward Palestinian statehood, they will press Abbas to stop using settlements as an excuse for intransigence – and cool their own overheated rhetoric.