Netanyahu's outright deceit
For Israel's hawkish premier, the issue is not halting illegal settlement expansion, but increasing it less conspicuously, writes Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah
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Netanyahu addressed the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington this week
While claiming to have a genuine desire for the resumption of "peace talks" with the Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel has been murdering Palestinian civilians in the streets of the West Bank in a clear overreaction to recent Palestinian protests against Israeli transgressions against Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem.
Eyewitnesses reported that trigger-happy Israeli troops shot had killed two young Palestinians who were trying to access their land near the northern West Bank town of Nablus. Initially, the Israeli army claimed the two tried to attack heavily armed soldiers with pitchforks, a claim rejected by the Ramallah- based Palestinian government that described the killings as "cold-blooded murder". An Israeli army spokesman later said the circumstances surrounding the two deaths were vague and that an investigation into "the incident" would be carried out.
Ghassan Al-Khatib, head of the Palestinian Government Press Office, accused the Israeli occupation army of murdering Palestinians in order to provoke a new uprising -- or Intifada -- that would divert the world's attention from the belligerent discourse adopted by the Netanyahu government. "We look at this as part of the Israeli escalation. It could have been treated in a completely different way. But the Israelis have been escalating, and this is something the prime minister [Netanyahu] has been warning."
More ominous remarks came from Mahmoud Al-Alul, a senior Fatah leader based in Nablus. He told some 2,000 mourners that, "nobody can imagine that we can stand with our hands tied vis-à-vis what is happening." A day earlier, two more Palestinians were killed and others injured when Israeli troops opened fired on Palestinian youths protesting against Israeli provocations at Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam's holiest shrines. The Israeli army claimed it used rubber bullets, though they can also prove fatal.
The latest killings in the West Bank coincided with visits to the region by EU Foreign Policy Director Catherine Ashton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki- Moon. Both visited Israel and the occupied territories, including the blockaded Gaza Strip, voicing their solidarity and sympathy with tormented Gazans, many of whom are homeless having had their houses destroyed during Israel's brutal onslaught against the coastal enclave last year.
Hoping that the two important visitors would not submit a "negative" report when they return to their respective bases in Brussels and New York, the Israeli government decided to allow them to travel to Gaza via the Beit Hanoun border terminal, also known as the Erez Crossing. Israel previously blocked repeatedly foreign officials from travelling to Gaza via Erez.
In the West Bank, Ban, escorted by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, saw firsthand how the proliferation of Jewish colonies is seriously inhibiting prospects for the creation of a viable Palestinian state. He called for a total freeze on Jewish settlement expansion, a call ignored by the Israeli government notorious for its disregard of and contempt for the UN.
In Gaza, Ban inspected destruction caused by massive Israeli bombing. He called on Israel to allow building materials to get through to Gaza, acknowledging the fallacy of the Israeli argument that Hamas could use building materials for illegitimate purposes. Ban had earlier met with the family of an Israeli prisoner, captured by Palestinian fighters near Gaza. The UN secretary-general made no mention of the thousands of Palestinians languishing in Israeli prisons and detention camps.
Both Ban and Ashton left Israel-Palestine with a negative impression about the extent to which the Netanyahu government is willing to engage in a genuine peace process that would end the military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Prior to his departure for the US in order to address a major conference of the Jewish lobby and to attempt to mend fences with the Obama administration, Netanyahu told his cabinet and party caucus that settlement expansion would continue unabated. He added that Israel would have to carry out its settlement schemes "quietly, stealthily, and without making a big noise".
As to recently declared plans to build 1,600 additional settler units in Arab East Jerusalem, Netanyahu vowed to keep building, regardless of what Washington says or does. "Our policy on Jerusalem is the same policy followed by all Israeli governments for the past 42 years. Building in Jerusalem is the same as building in Tel Aviv."
Netanyahu's remarks on Jerusalem were rejected by European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels this week. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn was quoted as saying that the EU was very disappointed by the position of the Israeli government. "I think I can say very clearly that Jerusalem is not Tel Aviv," he said.
Faced with an uncharacteristically determined American stance on the issue of settlement building, and dismayed by a growing negative impression in Europe -- including with close allies such as Germany -- about his government's true intentions, Netanyahu is expected to undertake a number of "goodwill gestures" towards the PA in order to enhance his government's image in Washington and Europe.
According to Israeli media, Netanyahu might agree to "discuss" all outstanding issues with the Palestinians, release a few hundred Fatah-affiliated prisoners, and allow the entry into Gaza of a limited shipment of building materials as demanded by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Nonetheless, the Israeli premier has refused to revoke plans to build 1,600 settler units in the Ramat Sholomo colony in East Jerusalem. To avoid the kind of embarrassment accompanying the recent visit to Israel by US Vice- President Joe Biden, when Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yeshai announced the new settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian town, Netanyahu promised a better "oversight system" for the future.
Netanyahu's tactics suggest he is convinced that the recent tension with Washington is over the timing, not the content, of the settlement expansion announcement. In addition, Netanyahu is trying to achieve two tactical goals. First, return the proverbial ball to the Palestinian court; second, replacing the "Iranian subject" on the top of US agenda while relegating the "Palestinian subject" to a secondary status. Netanyahu may even be harbouring further ambitions, including the acquisition of laser-guided bunker-busters from the US, which Israel could use in an attack on Iranian nuclear installations.
As Netanyahu headed for Washington, US Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell -- who returned to the region this week -- urged "both sides to show restraint". Mitchell was evasive and noncommittal about the issue of settlements, stressing that the important thing was to resume peace talks, even without clear guidelines. Recently, General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command in the Middle East, was quoted as criticising Mitchell's mission in the region, suggesting that the American diplomat was "too old, two slow and too late".