Settlement freeze dispute threatens direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are likely to remain elusive after Israeli officials said they could reject the settlement freeze Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas listed as a necessary precondition for any negotiations.
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Most Israelis prefer the largely secular Palestinian Authority (PA) as a negotiating partner over Hamas, the radical Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza since it violently ousted its rival, Fatah, in 2007.Skip to next paragraph
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Both Hamas and Fatah are losing support
More Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza support Fatah, says Gershon Baskin, codirector of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. But an even larger number of Palestinians don’t support either faction.
“The majority is not pleased with Hamas, but nor do they have great faith in Fatah’s ability to deliver,” he says.
If little progress is made in talks with the Fatah-dominated PA, or if Israel pressures Mr. Abbas to compromise on issues seen as crucial by the Palestinian public, it could inadvertently boost Hamas’s standing.
Chief among those issues is the expansion of settlements, says Mr. Khatib.
“The Palestinian public is mainly concerned about moving toward ending the occupation. Any steps perceived as moving in that direction will strengthen our public position and undermine Hamas – and vice versa,” he says. “If we enter negotiations without a settlement freeze, it will be perceived by the Palestinian public as a cover-up for continuous Israeli settlement, which is about consolidating the occupation.”
Israel's steady expansion
The number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank has quadrupled over the past four decades, with more than 300,000 Jews living in more than 120 communities. In addition, close to 200,000 Israeli Jews now live in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians envision as the capital of a future state.
Driving around the hilltops of the city's eastern half, one can see huge cranes and new housing developments with shiny playgrounds pushing outward into the hills where slender minarets punctuate the skyline, forcing a wedge between Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem after capturing a parcel of 6 square kilometers from Jordan in the 1967 war. But at the same time, it expanded the city's eastern borders farther into the West Bank to include a total of 40 square kilometers – tripling the overall size of Jerusalem and including all the commanding ridges to aid in its defense. The international community has not accepted Israel's annexation, instead seeing East Jerusalem as occupied territory, along with the West Bank.
Most Palestinians, Israelis want talks
While Israel's leaders are firmly united on preserving Jerusalem as their "undivided and eternal" capital, many Palestinians have little faith that any of their leaders can deliver peace.
PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is the most popular politician – due in part to his connection with tangible improvements such as building homes, schools, and roads, says Mr. Baskin.
“But at the higher political level, in terms of leading them toward peace with Israel, there’s no one that the Palestinian people trust,” he adds. “Most Israelis and Palestinians would rather be negotiating than not negotiating, but a large majority of Israelis and Palestinians don’t think there’s any chance for success.”
Joshua Mitnick contributed reporting from Beit El, West Bank.