x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Israeli settlements rise and a peace process stumbles

Israel's approval of a major new settlement at the edge of Jerusalem is more proof that the Israeli government has no interest in negotiations, only in expansion.

Recent weeks have seen a steady flow of important news stories from the Middle East, many garnering international headlines.

The capture and death of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi is one such story, as was the controversy over the decision by the Palestine Authority to seek membership at the United Nations (though less attention was given to the decision taken by the US Congress to cut aid to the PA as punishment for daring to seek its legitimate rights).

The release of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, after more than five years captivity in Gaza, in return for the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, also earned ink. And of course, the continuing conflict in Syria still does.

But not every major piece of news has gotten its fair shake. With all these vying for media space, it's not surprising that some stories slip through the media's collective cracks. Yet sometimes a story is largely ignored that deserves retelling. The announcement that Israel plans to build its first large settlement in a quarter of a century in the occupied West Bank is one of these.

The settlement at Givat Hamatos, on the southern edge of Jerusalem, will involve 2,600 new homes and will virtually cut the city off from the rest of the West Bank. The move has been condemned by the United Nations, the European Union, Britain and by others as being a deliberate move by Israel to block attempts being made by the major powers to restart peace talks.

As Meir Margalit, a member of Jerusalem's city council and a critic of the plan, explained to The Guardian: "This is a big deal, because this is a new settlement. It's not more houses in an existing settlement, but one that takes one of the last reserves of land remaining for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem. I don't want to be overly dramatic but this will be that last nail in the coffin of the peace process."

It is difficult to disagree with the logic of his argument. The Israeli settlements in the West Bank - roundly condemned as being illegal under international law - have long been a major stumbling block in efforts to resume negotiations on a future peace agreement. The Palestinian leadership have made it abundantly clear that there can be no new talks if the building of settlements continues; in response, Israel is planning to press ahead with one of the largest new settlement developments in decades.

The announcement of the Givat Hamatos plan, following shortly after another plan to extend an existing settlement, Gilo, by about 1,200 homes, has to be seen as what it really is: a statement by the Israeli government that, regardless of international opinion, it has absolutely no intention of entering into any meaningful negotiations.

If Israel wished to talk peace there would be no Givat Hamatos, no expansion of Gilo, no continuation of the old policy of creating facts in occupied territory through the establishment of settlements, to provide excuses for refusing to evacuate the land. With over half a million Israeli settlers in Jerusalem and the West Bank, that's a lot of excuses.

And if it wanted peace, Israel's government would stop those settlers who attack Palestinian villagers, or burn down their olive groves, or destroy their homes. But instead, the attacks by Israeli settlers against those they seek to dispossess continue unimpeded and without repudiation.

Unfortunately, no one seems able or willing to stop them.

Judging by the penalty imposed by the US Congress on the Palestine Authority for its attempt to secure UN membership, and by the enormous diplomatic pressure put by the US on Mahmoud Abbas to back down, there seems to be little chance of any effective moves from Washington to force Israel to reverse its decision on Givat Hamatos.

This lack of American pressure will only become more acute now that campaigning for the White House is under way. President Barack Obama will not want to give Republicans any more fodder to attack him, and so Israel's expansionist policies are likely to go unchallenged at least over the next few months.

The Arab world is undergoing the most dramatic changes of the last 40 years, and this is a time when the US should be reaching out to and engaging with the new political forces emerging in the region. Instead, what we are seeing - and what we will continue to see - is the sorry sight of the world's greatest power failing to find a way of resisting Israel's ability to dictate its foreign policy.

In the long run Israel will have to reach a reasonable agreement with its Palestinian neighbours if it wishes to live in peace. But with a bit more pressure, that day could arrive sooner rather than later. How sad that the US is not willing to replay that message now.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's culture and heritage