RAMALLAH // The Palestine Liberation Organisation yesterday welcomed international condemnation of Israel's decision last week to build 1,600 new housing units in occupied East Jerusalem, and said it had asked the US to provide guarantees that the construction will not go ahead. Tayyeb Abdul Rahim, the secretary general of the office of Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO chairman, last night said Palestinian negotiators were awaiting a response from the US administration before indirect negotiations with Israel would proceed.
"[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu could cancel the decision," Mr Abdul Rahim said. "Rhetoric should be matched with action," he added, in reference to US criticism of the Israeli announcement. Saeb Erekat, the PLO's chief negotiator, urged the international community to pressure Israel to end all settlement construction in the occupied territory. "We want these positions to become binding and for Israel to scrap its settlement decisions, especially its plan to build 1,600 homes in Jerusalem," Mr Erekat told AFP.
"We want a total halt ... we want to stop this Israeli policy that is useless and destructive for the peace process, especially for the US administration's honest efforts to relaunch real and serious negotiations." Mr Erekat's remarks did not indicate whether the PLO intended to embark on indirect negotiations with Israel that were supposed to have started last week but which Palestinian officials had Thursday said were off, in view of the East Jerusalem settlement plans. It is likely to take a little more than condemnation, however, for the PLO to feel comfortable entering into any kind of process with Israel.
The US and the Quartet of Middle East mediators - the US, Russia, the UN and the EU - had on Friday strongly criticised the Israeli announcement, which came in the middle of a visit by Joe Biden, the US vice president. Mr Biden is understood to have been deeply angered at what was on Friday night described as an insult by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state. "We have to make clear to our Israeli friends and partners that the two-state solution- requires confidence-building measures on both sides," Mrs Clinton said in an interview with CNN. "And the announcement of the settlements the very day that the vice president was there was insulting."
The Quartet issued a statement calling on both sides to avoid unilateral actions and not waste time before beginning indirect, or proximity, talks. "The Quartet condemns Israel's decision to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem," the statement said. "The Quartet has agreed to closely monitor developments in Jerusalem and to keep under consideration additional steps that may be required to address the situation on the ground."
The international focus on Israeli settlement building is welcomed by the Palestinian side, which has long argued that the Israeli project of settling occupied territory is the greatest obstacle to a two-state solution and the cause of the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. The US last year urged Israel to end all settlement construction, in line with its commitments under the 2003 Quartet road map plan for peace, before negotiations with the Palestinians began. Israel, however, rejected a total freeze, presenting instead in November a settlement construction slowdown that excluded Jerusalem as well as construction already begun and public building.
In spite of falling far short of the total freeze that Washington had first asked for, the US, indeed, Mrs Clinton herself, not only welcomed the Israeli move but hailed it as a "significant" step forward. But by embracing Israel's construction slowdown - which itself was breached last week when plans for 112 new housing units in a Bethlehem-area settlement were announced - Washington has put itself in a weaker position to criticise Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem. And though Mrs Clinton and other US officials have underscored that such moves "undermine confidence" in negotiations, US protests have mainly focused on the timing of the announcement rather then its content.
This is problematic for the PLO, which ultimately proved unable to resist US pressure to agree to some kind of negotiated process with Israel. It is a measure of how reluctantly the PLO acceded to this that it needed the device of proximity talks as well as Arab backing, sought and received from the Arab League two weeks ago. Negotiating with Israel while settlement construction continues is deeply unpopular with Palestinians and will be exploited to the full by Hamas, the main rival to Mr Abbas' Fatah faction, which opposes any negotiations with Israel.
It will therefore be very difficult now for the PLO to begin proximity talks in the absence of any firm commitment from the US to pressure Israel not to go ahead with the latest settlement building. According to some reports, such a commitment was yesterday offered the Palestinian side by George Mitchell, the US envoy. However, since construction on the 1,600 units in Jerusalem is not slated to go ahead in the near future, the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to assure Washington of just that and no more.
Mr Netanyahu will not reverse any decision on settlement construction in Jerusalem, a city that across the political spectrum in Israel is considered "indivisible", and in view of a coalition that would likely collapse should such a reversal take place. With Washington keen to begin a peace process but unlikely to apply any real pressure on Israel at least until after the midterm elections in November, it will likely be left to the Palestinian side once again to accommodate the political stalemate.