x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

US gambles on peace package to reinstate settlement freeze

An apparent commitment not to ask Israel to impose yet another freeze if talks fail again may leave Washington in a tough place.

WASHINGTON // The Obama administration is gambling that a new package of incentives reportedly offered Israel to reinstate a partial settlement construction moratorium for three months will be enough to breathe life into stalled direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis.

But three months provide the narrowest window for progress. Should negotiations break down again, it is not clear what Washington's next move will be. The United States seems to hope that once negotiations begin they will garner enough momentum to dissuade either party from walking away.

The stated intention to discuss borders of a future Palestinian state from the outset is partly tailored to entice the Palestinians to stay the course, it being a long-held view among Palestinian officials that should borders be agreed to first, most of the rest will fall into place. But there is recognition that agreement on borders cannot be finalised in the three months before any new moratorium ends. Having apparently committed itself not to ask Israel to renew such a partial construction freeze, it is unclear what measures would remain to the US.

The Palestinian side has already objected to the reported incentives package because it does not contain any provision to halt settlement construction in occupied East Jerusalem. And with the US reportedly guaranteeing to veto UN resolutions hostile to Israel, it neutralises the one threat the Palestinian side has wielded should negotiations fail, namely to seek unilaterally UN recognition for statehood in mid-2011.

Viewed in one way, the reported package offers little new to Israel. The arms incentives are a completion of a deal that Israel abandoned due to budgetary restraints, while the US has a long record of vetoing UN resolutions against Israel. Nevertheless, if reports are true that the US is committing not to ask for any extension to a moratorium, it suggests the administration has accepted that restraining expansion has not worked, said Geoffrey Aronson, of Washington's Foundation for Middle East Peace.

"I think what we are seeing is an admission that the idea of effective constraints on settlement expansion has failed," he said.

The US State Department has yet to confirm details of the deal apparently thrashed out last week. But with the reported deal coming after suggestions last month, since denied, that the US had offered to support a full Israeli army presence at the Jordan Valley under any final-status agreement, the indications are that the administration has moved considerably closer to accepting Israel's security priorities.

"The most important strategic achievement by Israel, if the deal is as reported, is that it suggests the US has accepted Israel's security narrative for the West Bank," said Mr Aronson.