Last week in this space, we criticized Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for making statements about the peace process — about what the P.A. will and won’t accept from these talks — despite U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that the only comments on the process would come from him.
Based on Kerry’s statement, we considered Abbas’ comments to be a setback to the process — albeit an early one and far from fatal.
This week, it’s Israel’s turn.
The Knesset has approved construction of 1,200 apartments in East Jerusalem and the West Bank — mere days before the second round of talks were set to begin in Jerusalem.
In announcing the approval, Housing and Construction Minister Uriel Ariel defiantly stated, “No country in the world takes orders from other countries where it can build and where it can’t. We will continue to market the homes, and to build in the entire country.”
Those words, not to mention the Knesset’s action, constituted even bigger setbacks to the process. It didn’t take long for Palestinian negotiator Mohammad Shtayyeh to brand the action as proof Israel is “not serious in the negotiations” and a “slap in the face of the Americans.”
We won’t go that far, but this is clearly the wrong time for any official action on settlement construction.
Just because the Palestinians dropped preconditions for resuming peace talks — particularly a freeze on settlement construction — doesn’t mean Israeli authorities should fast-track the groundbreaking. In fact, the wise thing to do would be to hold off any official action on construction, for now anyway, as a confidence-building measure; give the negotiators a chance to come up with something before making provocative gestures.
We’ll give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the same benefit of the doubt as we did Abbas. It could be the Knesset action provided the cover Bibi needs with his own power base while he continues to support the peace talks; Middle Eastern politics can be that Machiavellian.
It could also be the prime minister is losing control of his own party, which could force him to make some decisions soon that would forever change his political legacy (see Alan Elster’s column, page 9).
Or it could be that Netanyahu really isn’t serious about renewing the process and is deliberately disrupting it.
As with Abbas, we just don’t know.
But this we believe: If these talks aren’t taken seriously — by both sides — then they are making a grave mistake.
This paper has covered and commented on the Middle East for 51 years; rarely have we seen the region so unstable. Nuclear proliferation is fast becoming a reality. Moderate (and so-called moderate) regimes have fallen, succeeded by extremists or all-out civil war. Terrorists have increasingly freer reign to launch attacks.
In this climate, no one is safe — not the P.A. leadership, and certainly not Israel. Both sides have plenty to gain from peace talks, because if they fail, both sides have plenty to lose.