Netanyahu: champion of settlers
While the peace process tinkers into irrelevance, Israel is pressing ahead without apology in its settlement activities, writes Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah
No sooner had Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu arrived in the United States this week than the Israeli government announced plans to build as many as 1,300 additional settler units in the occupied West Bank.
The new plan -- added to numerous other plans to implant thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of additional settler units -- will further decapitate whatever hopes remain for a peace agreement between Israel and a disaffected and helpless Palestinian Authority (PA).
Most of the planned settler units will be built in the Har Homa settlement in the Bethlehem-Beit Sahur region, as well as in other Jewish only colonies inside or adjacent to East Jerusalem. The settlement of Har Homa, known in Arabic as Jabal Ab Ghuneim, was created -- despite a vociferous international outcry nearly 20 years ago -- with the purpose of isolating Palestinians in the southern West Bank from East Jerusalem.
East Jerusalem itself has been dotted with dozens of settlements that make prospects of statehood for the Palestinians even more sombre. Last week, it was revealed that the Israeli government had been colluding with settler groups to build 238 other apartments in East Jerusalem. The revelation coincided with another made by peace activists showing that the government, in coordination with the settlers, falsified land rights and other documents in order to seize more Arab property in the occupied city.
The disclosure of the new settlement expansion plan underscores the utter disregard and contempt with which the Israeli government views the peace process. It also illustrates Israeli defiance to desperate efforts by the Obama administration to patch up the already precarious process in the hope that "something" can be achieved before the expiration of Obama's term in office.
The Obama administration, still reeling from its election defeat at the hands of the Republicans last week, criticised the new settlement plan, saying it was "deeply disappointed" by the Israeli announcement. "[The announcement] is counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties," said State Department Spokesman Phillip J Cowley. "We have long urged both parties to avoid actions that could undermine trust, including in Jerusalem, and will continue to work to resume direct negotiations to address this and other final status issues."
However, the reaction seemed more geared for diplomatic consumption and to appease the Palestinians and less an indication that the Obama administration was about to take a proactive stance against Israel's unrelenting settlement activities. In fact, the Obama administration has given Netanyahu every kind of assurance that Washington doesn't mean what it says when distancing itself from Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, and that the Israeli premier has nothing to worry about.
For example, Vice-President Joe Biden has told Netanyahu that whatever differences there may be between Israel and the US over the settlements issue are tactical in nature and don't undermine or even impact the unshakable relations between the two allies. Biden was quoted as telling Netanyahu that US-Israeli relations would remain iron clad "despite" differences over settlements. "Our relations remain literally unbreakable."
Ironically, the only criticisms Netanyahu has received for his clear anti-peace policy in the West Bank came from members of the American Jewish community who seem to have lost some of their patience with Israel's long standing policy of using American Jewry and its clout on domestic American politics to promote racism, fascism and settlement expansion in occupied Palestine at the expense of peace efforts. While giving a speech at the Jewish Federation General Assembly in New Orleans on Monday, Netanyahu was repeatedly heckled from members of the audience.
According to the Israeli press, the first heckler interrupted Netanyahu barely moments after he began his 30-minute speech, shouting, "The loyalty oath de-legitimises Israel!" Subsequent interruptions protested the enduring Israeli occupation of Palestinian land as well as settler savagery and vandalism in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Netanyahu resorted to prevarication and verbal juggling, saying that he hoped that "unconditional talks" with the Palestinians would lead to a peace agreement within a year.
The Israeli premier ignored the tens of thousands of Israeli settler units built illegally according to international law in the occupied Palestinian territories, and the hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jewish citizens successive Israeli governments transferred to the West Bank to live on land that belongs to other people. In fact, instead of addressing the real problems stemming from the crippling impact of settlement expansion on an already moribund peace process, Netanyahu found an easy and comfortable red herring in the Iranian issue, urging the US to resort to the threat of force to make the Iranians rethink their alleged nuclear programme.
Israel is the only country in the Middle East that is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons.
Finally, PA officials continued to reiterate familiar platitudes about the impediments to peace posed by Israel's settlement policy. The latest statement coming from PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is that he will speak up when the time is right. When that will be is anyone's guess. But assuredly, Abbas and his colleagues are now feeling increasingly cheated by the Obama administration for failing to get Israel to freeze settlement activities in the West Bank. Abbas's popularity -- along with that of the peace process -- has dwindled considerably of late.