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MIDEAST: Netanyahu Plants Trees and More on Occupied Land

Jerrold Kessel and and Pierre Klochendler

MAALEH ADUMIM, Occupied West Bank, Jan 28 2010 (IPS) - When Benjamin Netanyahu dug a spade here and in another West Bank settlement this week, some thought the Israeli Prime Minister was actually digging a hole into current United States-sponsored peace efforts.

Certainly, Netanyahu was not indulging in an innocent tree-planting ceremony in advance of the upcoming Jewish “New Year of the Trees”.

He was attempting to stamp an indelible mark on the renewed U.S. peace drive, to make crystal clear Israel’s position that any negotiations leading to a division of the land as part of the two-state solution must start here, in the settlement blocks, and not, as is the Palestinian and U.S. position – from the 1967 borders.

The settlements were all created in the land taken over by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israel war and occupied since then. Close to the old border, the settlement blocks include most of the 300,000 Israeli settlers.

‘‘Listen all ye mediators and would-be peace partners, and be aware,” was the Netanyahu message. “We are planting here, we will stay here, we will build here. This place will be an inseparable part of Israel for eternity.”

Netanyahu had deliberately gone to the ceremony in the occupied West Bank straight from meeting U.S. President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, Senator George Mitchell. Netanyahu said he had heard from Mitchell “some interesting ideas” on ways to restart the talks with the Palestinians.

Last week, the Israeli leader had described the Palestinians as having “climbed a high tree” in their insistence on making their participation to new talks conditional on Israel implementing a total freeze on settlement activity. “They like it up there,” he added caustically.

The Palestinians are being forced to play catch-up with a change in American tactics.

Obama has admitted that the first year of peace-making has been anything but a success: “We overestimated our ability to persuade them … If we had anticipated some of these problems, we might not have raised expectations as high,” he confided to Time magazine over the weekend.

The president’s acknowledgement of failure was also a tacit admission of a volte-face in the American approach – that they are now bypassing their own initial absolute demand on a full settlement freeze, and insist instead to getting the parties to first negotiate the borders of the Palestinian state-to-be.

The original approach of Obama’s peace team built on the Annapolis process of a full peace kicked-off by the Bush administration, on the principle that “nothing’s agreed until everything’s agreed”.

Now, the approach seems to be: ‘‘Implement now what can be agreed, even if everything isn’t agreed upon”.

The new American rationale is that if there is an agreement on the contours of Palestine (for now, in the West Bank only), then the issue of settlement building within those borders automatically falls away.

From his meeting with Netanyahu, for his part, in a bid to extricate the parties from the one-year negotiating stalemate, Mitchell went on to Jordan for a second meeting with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. After the talks in Amman, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for Abbas, said, “It’s premature to talk about a real breakthrough.”

Indications are, however, that the Palestinians may be gradually coming around to recognise that if they continue to resist U.S. entreaties to resume talks, and stick firmly to the principle of an absolute settlement freeze – though that was enunciated firmly by Obama himself – they may no longer be advancing their own cause.

Reports after the meeting in the Jordanian capital suggest that Mitchell is making headway in his effort to inject a new reality into the rarified air which the Palestinians have been breathing.

Abbas reportedly told the U.S. envoy that, if the Americans would commit to being full partners at a reconstructed peace table, the Palestinians might consider joining after all – despite Netanyahu’s position of the settlement issue.

Netanyahu successfully held off the initial Obama gambit on the settlements.

Now, in face of the modified U.S. approach, the prime minister is seeking to rally his defences around the blocks of settlements. He obdurately insists they are part and parcel of Israel.

The Netanyahu counter-gambit appears to be based on an offering to exchange pieces with the Palestinians: Israel offers, ‘‘take your state within provisional borders in line with Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad’s intention to unilaterally declare such a state within the coming year; in return, accept that other Palestinian claims (on East Jerusalem and the question of the Palestinian refugees) be set aside for the foreseeable future”.

Netanyahu hopes the Palestinians can eventually be browbeaten into accepting his ‘better something than nothing’ approach.

How will the Americans handle this Netanyahu counter-challenge to their ‘just-get-back-to-the-table-and-talk’ tactic?

Before embarking on his latest shuttle endeavour, Mitchell had not been afraid to define the ultimate goal of the new American engagement.

“Full implementation” of the Arab League peace initiative he said candidly in a PBS television interview. That re-stated 2002 initiative calls for total Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, the establishment of a Palestinian state, and “a just and agreed upon solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem in return for an end to the conflict and full normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world.

Netanyahu’s strategy – trees, houses and all – is, however, for an interim agreement, not for an end to the conflict.

More pointedly, he wants the U.S.-sponsored border negotiations to start not from the old Israel-West Bank border (and only then to relate to the settlement blocks as a special issue), but for the talks to start from the settlement blocks themselves, which, he contests, are, in any event, an integral part of Israel.

The big question is whether Obama will acquiesce in this Netanyahu attempt to secure a temporary ‘draw’ in the negotiations – a draw that would allow him effectively to go on incorporating the settlement blocks into Israel.

Or, will the U.S. President – in contrast to the previous dispute over the settlements – choose to face Netanyahu down? And make a more vigorous assault on the Israeli leader’s position?

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