ABU NIMAH: It’s not the settlements that are freezing, but the peace process August 13, 2009
by Hasan Abu Nimah - Alarabiya - 12 August 2009
In his latest round of talks with Israeli officials, U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell proposed that Israel undertake a 12-month freeze on building settlements in the occupied West Bank.
According to media reports, Israel turned down the proposal and countered it with a six-month conditional freeze. Israel wants to exclude from any “freeze” about 2,500 settler housing units already under construction.
Thus, Mitchell’s most recent visit to the region had no tangible accomplishments other than the usual jargon that talks went well, dealt with important matters and would continue. But for how long can this go on, and what new ideas can Mitchell be expected to bring on his next trip?
It has already been almost eight months since Mitchell embarked on his delicate peace-making mission. Another couple of fruitless visits and close to one quarter of Obama’s four-year term are bound to pass without creating any real expectations of meaningful progress.
One should not rule out the fact that the outcome of the next Mitchell mission will be some sort of agreement on a time-limited settlement freeze. Although that would be important in the sense that it would pave the way for the next American step and put a temporary hold on the fast-creeping colonization of Arab land, it would not be an achievement worthy of such long and intensive diplomacy by the most influential power in the world.
The use of the term “freeze” is hazardous, all the more so when preceded by the word “temporary”. It shifts the debate from the illegality, under international law, of Israel’s settlements towards something totally superficial: the pace of construction.
By demanding a temporary freeze, the U.S. is indirectly accepting what has been built so far, as well as the idea that Israel is entitled at the end of the agreed period to resume construction if its ever-escalating demands are not met.
Perhaps Washington hopes that once the freeze is in place, it can launch its own peace plan – much speculated about in the press. The U.S. may hope that such a plan, and any negotiations over it, would gather enough momentum for Israel not to be easily able to go back to construction. This approach may be logical on paper, but it is wildly optimistic and depends on a number of other factors lining up in just the right way. One is the nature of any American-sponsored peace plan. The usual dilemma is that anything close to the minimum that even the U.S.-funded and supported Palestinian leaders in Ramallah can accept would still be much more than Israel is ready to offer, and vice versa.
We are accustomed to the fact that Israel does not only reject what is truly unacceptable from its point of view but also much more, in order to exhaust its adversaries’ energy on trivial or non-controversial matters. Through this tactic, Israel hopes to extract a high reward for accepting the acceptable and to ensure that it never has to accept the unacceptable.
Any American peace plan – no matter how carefully crafted and even fair it might be – would have to survive such a process and still produce a fair and sustainable settlement. Given that American proposals are almost always tilted in favor of Israel at the outset, the chances of any American plan forming a real basis for peace with justice are still close to nil.
A second factor relates to the comprehensive nature of the anticipated peace talks. American officials have hinted that Washington intends to resolve the conflict in its entirety, including the long-stalled Syrian and Lebanese tracks. That sounds perfectly fine, but how will Washington approach the Syrian and the Lebanese fronts? Will Mitchell try to broker an agreement in advance among the various parties or will Washington present its own plan, as anticipated on the Palestinian-Israeli front?
It is unlikely that Washington would rush to commit itself regarding Syria’s Golan Heights by either proposing an Israeli withdrawal, which would raise a violent storm in Israel, or by leaving it to the two sides to settle, which would raise serious suspicions in Syria. It would undoubtedly take months of shuttling, if not years, and intensive diplomacy to establish common negotiating grounds between the Syrian and Israeli sides, well beyond the shelf life of a settlement freeze.
Lebanon only has small territories remaining under Israeli occupation, which may make it easier for Washington to demand total Israeli withdrawal. It is the question of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon that may complicate matters. The Lebanese government insists on not allowing any Palestinian refugee to stay on its soil beyond any settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Where would the 400,000 Palestinian refugees currently in Lebanon go if their right of return to Palestine is not recognized either at the outset of negotiations or as a result? Again, it would take years of negotiations before any agreement on this hard issue can be reached, if ever.
The third and last factor is regional. Washington has promised Israel Arab normalization right after the first small step, the freeze. That may cause controversy too. Israel always demands more than can be realistically offered. It is also uncertain that all Arab states would rush to take normalization steps just as an agreement on temporary freeze was reached.
So far, eight months have been spent on the very preliminary step of a settlement freeze with no results yet. All this is just to get the so-called “peace process” back on its previous path. But that path is also paved with outdated formulas that need to be revised.
What this points to is that Mitchell must trade in his cautious approach for something with greater urgency, political courage and willingness to confront Israeli intransigence if he wants to make meaningful progress. How likely is that when even the timid demands he has made of Israel have been met with such resistance?
Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations.
NOTE: Painting by Jeanne Curran – altered to include word PEACE