x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Netanyahu defies Obama on Israeli settlement freeze

Aides to the Israeli prime minister indicated on Friday that even as Israel will agree to a limited freeze on settlement growth in the West Bank, it also plans to construct hundreds on new housing units for Jewish settlers. This self-contradictory position led The White House to express its "regret" in what appeared to be a tacit admission that President Barack Obama's efforts to halt settlement expansion have so far proved ineffective.

Aides to the Israeli prime minister indicated on Friday that even as Israel will agree to a limited freeze on settlement growth in the West Bank, it also plans to construct hundreds on new housing units for Jewish settlers. This self-contradictory position led The White House to express its "regret" in what appeared to be a tacit admission that President Barack Obama's efforts to halt settlement expansion have so far proved ineffective. "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision, leaked to Israeli news media and confirmed by an Israeli official, drew a swift rebuke from the White House," the Los Angeles Times reported. "It came as US special envoy George J Mitchell was trying to coax a package of concessions from Israelis and Arabs that would enable President Obama to launch a new peace initiative this month at the United Nations. "After months of resisting the administration's demand to halt settlement growth, Netanyahu will consider a limited, temporary suspension, the official said; but it would not cover the additional new homes or 2,500 housing units being built on West Bank land claimed by the Palestinians. "Nor will Netanyahu accept a US-proposed halt to Jewish residential building in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, the official said." A White House statement said: "Continued settlement activity is inconsistent with Israel's commitment under the Roadmap. "As the President has said before, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop. We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate. "We do appreciate Israel's stated intent to place limits on settlement activity and will continue to discuss this with the Israelis as these limitations are defined." Sources in Washington told the Israeli newspaper Ynet on Friday: "the US was not surprised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to authorise construction plans in the West Bank, just ahead of a planned signing of a deal with the US that would freeze settlement activity. "According to the sources, during a meeting in New York last Wednesday Netanyahu's envoys Yitzhak Molcho and Mike Herzog informed special Mideast envoy George Mitchell of the PM's decision. They apparently told Mitchell that the approval of the construction of hundreds of housing units in the West Bank was necessary in order to soften Israel's rightist camp ahead of the expected settlement freeze. "Sources in Washington said Netanyahu's announcement would not impede the talks on a settlement freeze, adding that an agreement on the matter is expected to be reached during Netanyahu's meeting with Mitchell in Jerusalem, scheduled for next week." A Palestinian Authority official told Ynet Friday: "his government would consider asking the European Union to impose sanctions on Israel following the prime minister's decision to approve construction plans in West Bank settlements. "The official said the PA had previously considered the diplomatic move. 'There is not a country in the world that doesn't believe the danger to peace is Israeli policy, and especially its settlement policy, so we must actualise this concept and translate it into sanctions.' " The Israeli newspaper also reported: "Hours after the angered Palestinian response to Israel's plans to authorise the construction of hundreds of new housing units in the West Bank before implementing a settlement freeze it became apparent that the plans were not necessarily approved by the United States. "Kurt Hoyer, spokesman for the US embassy in Tel Aviv, said Friday Washington would be unlikely to accept anything 'contrary to the spirit of negotiations they've been undertaking' and added it was 'doubtful' the US had signed off on the Israeli decision." In The Times, James Hider said: "The latest announcement puts Washington in a difficult position - Mr Obama had planned to announce a resumption of peace talks this month at a meeting of the UN General Assembly, flanked by the Israeli Prime Minister and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President. That is unlikely to happen, with Mr Abbas already declaring his anger at the latest news. "The Palestinians have said that they would not return to the negotiating table until all settlement building has ceased - 'Not one brick,' Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Prime Minister, told The Times last month. Israel would be quick to put blame for any breakdown on Palestinian reluctance to return to the bargaining table. "Backing down now would involve a serious loss of face for Mr Obama and a victory for Mr Netanyahu that would set the tone for any talks that could still be salvaged from the crumbling US plan. But the Israeli leader may be reckoning that his US ally is so deeply bogged down in a worsening war in Afghanistan, the global financial crisis, selling unpopular healthcare reforms and facing down a potentially nuclear Iran that he will take his eye off the ball in this crucial area." In The National, Craig Nelson described how the politics of the settlements is not simply about who occupies the land but also who controls the flow of water. "Water flows plentifully in the Jewish settlement of Eli high up on top of a hill in the heart of the West Bank. "An abundance of trees and plants - towering palm trees and magenta bougainvillea, even maples, firs and poplars - spill around the spacious, red-tiled roofed homes of the 700 families that live here. "Eli's Olympic-size swimming pool is crowded with laughing mothers and children. A peacock strolls across one of many swathes of mostly luxuriant green grass, stopping to preen its brilliant tail feathers. "Despite a summer drought that has parched the Palestinian villages dotting the valley floor below, the lush panorama is entirely fitting for a patch of land its residents believe was deeded to them by God. " 'We should take care of ourselves first,' says Tamar, who has lived in Eli since 1996. "As for the Palestinians' proper share of the water from the underground reservoirs that lie under the West Bank and make this bounty possible, they will just have to wait, says the 36-year-old mother of five children, who asks that her last name not be used. " 'We should take care of the foreigners here, and give them running water and help them survive and live the proper way,' she says firmly, like a schoolmarm. 'But we should do this only after they understand we are the rulers of this country. Until they deserve it, they can't have the best conditions.' "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers up many lessons: the brutality of military occupation, the clash of nationalisms and ethnicities, the mendacity of political leaders, the rank cynicism of outsiders. As Tamar and other West Bank settlers attest, it also is a lesson in the politics of water - who gets it, where it comes from, how it is distributed."

pwoodward@thenational.ae