Saturday, October 2, 2010

Settlement or settlements Claude Salhani (View from Washington)

The Obama administration is trying a last-ditch effort to revive the dormant Middle East peace negotiations and is pushing hard to get the Palestinians and Israelis to finalise a peace deal before the November mid-term elections in the United States.

Obama has stressed that a Middle East peace accord is in the national interest of the United States. That is undoubtedly true. In the long run the US can only benefit from a peaceful Middle East. But then again, so can the Obama reelection campaign.

However, despite all the pressures from the White House to try and reach an understanding, both sides remain as far from a settlement as they have ever been, with additional hurdles popping up along the way.

It is the very question of settlements that seems to be the new hurdle in the peace talks this time around. Israel wants to continue building settlements on land occupied in the 1967 war. The Palestinians refuse to sit at the negotiating table so long as Israel does not put a halt to settlement expansion. Israel talks about ‘natural extension,’ meaning that as children of settlers reach adulthood and establish families of their own, they will need new homes, and thus the settlements need to grow. Israel calls this ‘natural expansion.’ Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas calls it grabbing Palestinian land, and said he would not return to the negotiating table as long as the question of settlements remains unsettled.

Every time there is an attempt to revive the peace talks a new snag sneaks into the dispute putting a freeze to negotiations. The last time when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the US to confer with President Barak Obama, the Israeli leader insisted that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish State. This time it is the Palestinians who are raising a ruckus.

Will the next meeting raise protests over the continued occupation of the Shebaa Farms and the village of Ghajar in South Lebanon? Part of the dilemma of the Middle East conflict is that the longer the problem lingers, the more complex it becomes. What began as a dispute over real estate 60-some years ago has now turned into a religious conflict, making it all that more difficult to resolve and more explosive.

And this dispute is likely to keep on growing unless stopped. Indeed, Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned American audiences that there would be a new war in the Middle East by the end of the year unless Israel extended its moratorium on building settlements in the West Bank and in Arab East Jerusalem.

The Israeli moratorium on settlement construction ended last Sunday and repeated US requests to Netanyahu were ignored. And if Israel’s foreign minister, the ultra hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman, gets his way the situation may yet further deteriorate.

How likely is that to happen? It seems rather unlikely, but then again, anything can happen in the Middle East. This is the land of miracles, after all. Would the Netanyahu cabinet survive an attempt to sideline Labour from any talks with the Palestinians, as Labour tends to be more sympathetic to the Palestinians. Yet when I raised the issue of possible deportation of Israeli Arabs, a young Palestinian official working for the Palestine Liberation Organisation, replied, “The difference between the Israeli left and right is that the left will put us aboard air conditioned buses.”
Claude Salhani is a Middle East analyst

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