What’s the big deal about freezing “settlement activity”? Israel is only talking about building within the boundaries of existing settlements, and most of these ‘settlements’ are in East Jerusalem or right on the Green Line. It’s hard to imagine how this can be a practical impediment to a peace agreement.
Yet the Palestinians are insisting that there can be no discussion until such activity stops, and multiple American spokespersons have made it clear that the US also takes this issue very seriously. Why?
From the Palestinian point of view it’s simple. First, it’s a great talking point. They can say “Israel refuses to stop building settlements, so they are not serious about peace”. The distinction between building homes in Gilo (between West Jerusalem and Bethlehem) and colonizing a hilltop in Samaria is lost on the media, but they are more than ready to conclude that Israel is the real obstacle to peace if given an excuse.
Second, if the Americans can be persuaded to go along it could be a weapon against the Netanyahu government:
Abbas and his team fully expect that Netanyahu will never agree to the full settlement freeze — if he did, his center-right coalition would almost certainly collapse. So they plan to sit back and watch while U.S. pressure slowly squeezes the Israeli prime minister from office. “It will take a couple of years,” one official breezily predicted. — Jackson Diehl, Washington Post
Netanyahu was pushed from power in a similar way during his first term as Prime Minister (1996-1999), when American demands led him to concede control of Hebron and to sign the Wye River Agreement promising further concessions to the Palestinians. The consequent erosion in support from his base was part of the reason he was defeated by Ehud Barak.
But the interesting question is “why are the Americans pushing so hard?” Some possible answers:
- They also want Netanyahu out. But Obama can’t wait the interminable months for a new Israeli government to be up and running, so I doubt this.
- They want to put pressure on Netanyahu short of bringing him down. They know he can’t accept a freeze so they can use it as a bargaining point to get something else.
- They have promised other Arab nations — Saudi Arabia comes to mind — that they will make ‘progress’ on the settlement issue.
What is frustrating to me is the energy being expended by the US over the non-issue of a settlement between Israel and the increasingly irrelevant Palestinian Authority.
The real issues in the Israeli-Arab conflict are the huge military threats from the Hezbollah and Syrian rocket stockpiles, the popularity of Hamas among Palestinians, and of course the ever-spinning Iranian centrifuges.
All of these come down to one: Iran’s project to eliminate the Jewish state.