While the world thought Obama would champion justice, Israel has proven that his words are meaningless, writes Khaled Amayreh in occupied Jerusalem
Despite American and international calls for freezing Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, the Israeli government this week authorised the building of hundreds of additional settler units on occupied Palestinian land. The decision, taken by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, represents a direct challenge to the Obama administration that has been urging Israel to freeze settlement building but to no avail.
The decision also seems to underscore Israel's undeclared resolve to prevent the creation of a viable Palestinian state despite ostensibly insincere statements to the contrary by Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The planned settler units will be built across the West Bank, including in the "Gush Etzion" area, north of Hebron and Maali Adomim east of Jerusalem.
More settler units will also be built in East Jerusalem, killing Palestinian hopes for making the city the future capital of a sovereign Palestinian state. Netanyahu has been saying that the planned settlement expansion is being pursued in tacit understanding with the Americans, a claim the Obama administration has denied.
Earlier, the White House said it "regreted" reports that Netanyahu planned to approve the construction of hundreds of additional settler units in the West Bank. "Continued settlement activity is inconsistent with Israel's commitment under the roadmap," a White House statement said. The statement went on: "President Obama doesn't accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop. We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate."
However, verbal condemnations from Washington criticising settlement expansion have obviously had little or no impact on Israeli government thinking. One Israeli official was recently quoted as saying, "We do the work, and the Americans will do the talking." Another official advised Netanyahu that there is no reason for Israel to freeze settlement building in the West Bank, as long as the US doesn't take "tangible and proactive measures against us".
The Israeli interpretation of the American stand, as mere verbal opposition intended to appease Arabs, seems plausible. The White House has refused to take any practical measures to force Israel to stop undermining whatever prospects still remain for the two- state solution to be realised, merely reiterating old platitudes that building more settlements is contrary to the spirit of negotiations.
Moreover, the overall stand of the Obama administration seems to have shifted lately from concentration on the settlement issue to lukewarm calls for the resumption of peace talks between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The new settlement expansion plans have drawn angry but helpless reactions from PA officials, with Saeb Erekat, the erstwhile chief Palestinian negotiator, accusing Israel of seeking to predetermine the outcome of the peace process even before the beginning of negotiations. "Israel's decision to approve the construction of over 450 settler units nullifies any effect that the settlement freeze, when and if announced, will have."
Another Palestinian official, Nabil Abu Rudeina, reiterated the official Palestinian stand, saying, "we will not go back to the negotiating table before a halt to settlement building."
Similarly, Hamas castigated the "travesty otherwise known as the peace process," saying that the new settlement expansion plan proved that President Obama was losing his credibility in failing to get Israel to take the path of peace. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement to the press this week that, "the peace process is a term that only exists in the minds of those who wager on it while Israel continues to steal Palestinian land."
The Israeli government has been saying that it will initiate a freeze on settlement expansion, while continuing work on some 2,500 settler units all over the West Bank. This is in addition to the 450-500 new settler units approved by Barak over the weekend. The Israeli government has also failed to remove dozens of settler outposts in the West Bank, which Barak had pledged to the Americans to dismantle.
Building thousands of new settler units to compensate for outposts that have not been removed is simple subterfuge, cheating, trickery and prevarication, and shows that Israel is not only insincere about pursuing a serious peace process with the Palestinians but is also disingenuous about living side- by-side in peace with the Palestinians.
This week, former US president Jimmy Carter alluded to this, saying that Palestinian leaders were seriously considering a one-state solution with Israel as the latter continued to make the prospect of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank unrealistic through relentless expansion activities. "By renouncing the dream of an independent Palestine, they would become fellow citizens with their Jewish neighbours and then demand equal rights within a democracy," Carter wrote in the Washington Post Sunday.
Carter, who has made several tours in the Middle East, said Palestinian frustration and disillusionment couldn't last indefinitely. "Increasingly desperate Palestinians see little prospect of their plight being alleviated. Political, business and academic leaders are making contingency plans should President Obama's efforts fail."
Al-Ahram Weekly asked Hani Al-Masri, a prominent political analyst, if he thought the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah had any alternative course of action in the event that Obama's strategy in the Middle East collapses. He suggested that PA President Mahmoud Abbas was betting too much on Obama: "Abbas believes that the alternative to failed negotiations is more negotiations. However, this position is untenable and could only boomerang on Abbas and create a sort of implosion within the Fatah organisation."
Al-Masri also said he didn't believe the PA would continue to refuse the resumption of talks with the Netanyahu government, as Abbas has been vowing. "They were negotiating with the previous Olmert government when settlement expansion was going at full speed. Besides, they are in no position to say no to the Obama administration."