JERUSALEM — To call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “settlement freeze” a diplomatic nonstarter or a political fake-out would be an understatement.
Despite the Obama administration’s accolades and the uncritical hype given it by the Israel news media, the freeze is a step backward rather then forward.
Nearly identical terms were proposed during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent overnight visit, the main difference being that Netanyahu did not include a time frame. This time he did — 10 months.
His original proposal prompted Clinton to call it “unprecedented,” but she modified that verbal reaction at her next stop, Morocco.
The “freeze” was and still is meant to lure President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority back to conference table and was motivated by his previous refusal to resume talks on a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict that were conducted during the tenure of Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
When Netanyahu took office last February, Abbas was buoyed by President Obama’s call for a halt to all construction work within the West Bank’s existing Jewish settlements, including that which was deemed essential by Netanyahu for “natural growth,” — kindergartens, nurseries and extra rooms for newborn babies.
Netanyahu’s government went on to authorize 3,000 housing starts within the settlements and continuation of work on nearly 500 other projects already under way. This created a nervous stalemate between Washington and Jerusalem and made it impossible for Presidential Envoy George Mitchell to make any headway toward his assigned goal, i.e. the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Then Netanyahu came out with his pseudo-concession: a 10-month long halt to new construction within the perimeters of the existing settlements in which 300,000 Israelis now live. It included one exception: “public buildings” needed for “natural growth.”
He made no mention of Israeli projects in the former East Jerusalem, which the Palestinian Authority wants as its future capital. (Never mind the historical truth that he who controls Jerusalem controls Israel, Palestine or whatever name you may prefer for the Holy Land.)
Without saying so outright, Netanyahu’s silence on that score indicated that his government would not re-divide Jerusalem. Israeli public opinion probably would not let him.
Palestinian Authority officials rejected the prime minister’s dubious initiative even before it was proclaimed at an artificially dramatized news conference.
As soon as it was outlined live on all of Israeli television and radio, the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, issued an unequivocal rejection.
“There is nothing new in the announcement and no change in the status quo of settlements,” he said.
Erekat, who has dealt with a series of Israeli governments since 1993, when the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization were concluded (in violation of Israeli law since the PLO was considered — rightly — a terrorist organization) charged that Israel’s proposed moratorium includes unlimited and accelerated settlement expansion in and around East Jerusalem.
Instead of clearing the way to a new round of negotiations, as Mitchell naively predicted it would, Netanyahu’s announcement torpedoed them.
What should be obvious to every student of international relations, whatever his or her political inclination may be — pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian — is that Israel’s incumbent government merely is paying lip service to a simplistic and noninspirational two-state solution knowing full well that it is unrealistic and unattainable.
Suffice it to say that as long as the Iranian-backed Hamas organization remains in control of the Gaza Strip the projected West Bank-Gaza Strip state will be a losing proposition.
Another obstacle in its convoluted path is the fact that Abbas himself purportedly does not want to run for another term as P.A. president.
Since there is no clear successor — one acceptable to the Israelis — one may conclude that there cannot be only one way to end the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and to hope that there must be alternatives to the unrealistic two-state conundrum.
That is the real challenge awaiting genuine leadership on the Israeli and Palestinian sides. One can only hope that competent and credible men or women will emerge in the near future to meet that challenge.
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)