Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Washington Post points out: Settlements are not the main barrier to peace

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Israel received strong international criticism when it announced its plans to build homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, in response to the Palestinian unilateral move to obtain ‘observer state' status at the UN General Assembly.

On December 19, all UN Security Council members except the United States criticised Israel demanding an immediate halt to new settlement construction. Four separate statements were made by the eight council members from the Non-Aligned Movement, the four European members, Russia and China.

In Australia there was also strong criticism. Foreign Minister Bob Carr called in Israel's Ambassador to Australia on December 4 to convey concerns regarding Israel's plans to build in E1 (see previous blog post), and stated in a media release "Australia has long opposed all settlement activity. Such activity threatens the viability of a two-state solution without which there will never be security in Israel." Again on January 2, Foreign Minister Carr told Tony Walker of the Australian Financial Review "That was the major reason for abstaining, to send a message [on settlements]. If we'd voted ‘no' we would've missed the opportunity to place a hand on the shoulders of the Israeli leadership and give them the advice of a friend."

Such sentiments were also echoed in a piece by Ross Burns, a former Ambassador to Israel (2001-2003) who is currently on the executive of the Australian Palestine Advocacy Network, in the Australian on December 24 responding to Dr. Colin Rubenstein's article in the Australian on December 20 which argued building in settlements was not the great obstacle to Mid-East peace so many were alleging.

Now the Washington Post Editorial Board has, like Dr. Rubenstein, responded to the wave of international criticism in an editorial on January 2 by noting that such criticism is "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." In addition, the editorial points out that the perpetual focus on settlements makes it more difficult to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to negotiations - and that it appears hypocritical in light of the Syrian conflict which has reportedly killed 60,000 people, but has not received the same attention from Security Council members.

But most importantly, the Washington Post editorial explains the factual realities about Israeli building in settlements which demonstrate why the "rhetoric" and reaction to settlements is also "overheated":

"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. Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Netanyahu's zoning approval is hardly the ‘almost fatal blow' to a two-state solution 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. Mr. 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 Mr. Abbas to stop using settlements as an excuse for intransigence - and cool their own overheated rhetoric." 

Sharyn Mittelman

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