x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Settlers: US veto was right decision for wrong reason

Right-wing politicians and pro-settler activists did not hold raucous ceremonies, as they did to mark the Israeli government¿s refusal last September to extend a moratorium on settlement construction.

PSAGOT, WEST BANK // The residents of this hilltop Jewish enclave in West Bank did not celebrate when the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlement building.

Right-wing politicians and pro-settler activists did not hold raucous ceremonies, as they did to mark the Israeli government's refusal last September to extend a moratorium on settlement construction.

Instead, Washington's veto last Friday of a Security Council resolution that would have condemned Israel's settlements as "illegal" has been met by obliviousness and scorn.

Even though the administration of the US president, Barack Obama, risked its own isolation by scuttling the overwhelmingly popular measure, settlers such as Elad Mandel, 26, seemed to care less.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Mr Mandel, a student who lives in the West Bank settlement of Beit El, said when asked about the US veto.

Roughly 120 nations and 14 of the Security Council's 15 members supported the UN measure. Its authors intentionally drafted the resolution in language that mirrored prior criticism of Israel's settlements by Obama administration officials, such as Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state.

And yet, the US came off as more committed to maintaining their country's relationship with Israel than upholding the credibility of its pronouncements.

Mr Mandel expressed surprise at this but still questioned the US president's intentions. "There is a feeling here that Obama isn't entirely supportive of us."

As far as settler leaders are concerned, their complaint with the US is that its heart was not in the right place. "The right reason to veto is for the notion that Jews should not be forbidden to build homes in places where Jewish communities thrived 3,000 years ago," said Danny Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council, which represents settler interests.

"I think the US veto was of course the right thing to do, but it was done for all the wrong reasons."

For Mr Dayan, rejecting the measure without reaffirming the Jewish right to live in this biblically significant but hotly contested land was "immoral".

Politically, however, that notion may be harder for Israel's government to defend. Condemnation of its expanding settlement enterprise has steadily risen since US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians collapsed late last year.

Dror Etkes, an Israeli settlement expert who lives in a village outside Jerusalem, believes the settlers' reaction to the veto is indicative of their reluctant acknowledgement that their enterprise is unsustainable in its current form.

Partly because of US pressure, he said, settlement growth has slowed compared to when more liberal governments ran Israel a decade ago. "The settlement project is much more fragile than is widely thought, and the settlers understand this best."

Without continued US support, which now seems to be offered more reluctantly, Israel may be subjected to intensified international boycotts. If perceived too big an economic liability, middle-class Israelis would be far more reluctant to sustain settlements with their tax dollars. "This is why the veto in the UN is important, because the decision could have had economic implications on Israel," Mr Etkes said.

In the meantime, fears that the West Bank is approaching an apartheid-like situation is creeping into Israeli political discourse. This comes amid heightened concern that Israel's control over the area is undermining the country's Jewish character and its democratic institutions.

"If the US veto was damaging for the Palestinian campaign, it might be remembered as the nail in the coffin of Oslo [the peace process] and the beginning of what could be Israel as an apartheid state," said Didi Remez, a prominent Israeli peace activist.

"This has been a pyrrhic victory for Israel."

Yet Yaela Briner does not see it this way. The manager of the Nachalat Binyamin visitor centre, a settlement institution with a thriving winery, does not want to discuss the West Bank roads that bar Palestinian drivers and other issues of discrimination involving settlements.

"We're just trying living our lives," she said. "We just want to live in peace - we want to live here too."

The more immediate casualty of all this may be Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, and his western-backed authority. In the nearly two decades of peace talks, the number of settlers and their constellation of settlement enterprise, such as Psagot wines, has expanded dramatically in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

As a result, many question the viability of an independent Palestinian state, even as Mr Abbas and his reform-minded prime minister, Salam Fayyad, help to usher in unprecedented economic growth and security.

At a small market in Psagot that overlooks Ramallah and its new five-star Movenpick hotel, Nachama Felheim, 63, a settler and proud grandmother, said she could be willing to give up life in this community of less than 2,000 people.

"If there would be a peace - I mean real peace - I would leave."

But she expressed her doubts about what many other regard as unmistakable signs stability and resulting economic growth in the West Bank, largely a consequence of unprecedented co-ordination between Israel's military and increasingly proficient Palestinian security forces.

"Can you see the change?" she said. "We can't."

hnaylor@thenational.ae