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.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
An excavator works near houses under construction in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Beitar Ilit, near Bethlehem, March 8. Israel and the Palestinian Authority continue to be at odds over a settlement freeze.

An Israeli settlement freeze is emerging as the biggest obstacle to resuming direct talks aimed at ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to announce as early as Monday his willingness to enter such negotiations, but with preconditions Israel has said it is not prepared to accept.

“The Palestinians are looking for either an Israeli commitment to a settlement freeze, or a Quartet [European Union, United States, United Nations, and Russia] statement that would be accepted by both sides as a basis for negotiations,” says Ghassan Khatib, director of the Palestinian Authority government’s media center. “We are looking for a settlement freeze according to the definition of Quartet … road map – adopted by the United Nations Security Council – which called for a settlement freeze in all occupied areas including East Jerusalem.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner cabinet reportedly met this weekend to discuss a possible continuation of a 10-month Israeli freeze due to expire on Sept. 26. Palestinians have criticized that freeze as inadequate, because it did not include East Jerusalem, although it became clear this spring that a de facto freeze had been implemented.

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements

Mr. Netanyahu has said that continuing the freeze would be politically impossible, causing his coalition to fall apart. Many settlers in the West Bank either opposed the freeze outright, or accepted it as a necessary evil. But an extension could erode any support Netanyahu and his right-wing allies retain from those constituents.

If the moratorium is extended, “there might be an explosion,” says a young yeshiva student in Beit El, where Israeli security forces recently destroyed a small shack built by young protesters, resulting in a violent clash that injured 30. “The state is investing more effort in destroying housing than it is in fighting Hamas.”

The Hamas factor

Indeed Hamas, which issued a strong statement against direct talks this weekend, remains a thorny issue for Israel.

"The Palestinian refusal movements confirm their objection to direct or indirect talks and warn against the dangerous consequences of a policy which undermines national Palestinian rights. Return to direct negotiations is capitulation to the demands of the US and the Zionists, who seek to abolish these rights," said the statement, issued jointly with 10 Palestinian groups based in Damascus, Syria.

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.

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.

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“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.

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements

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