Conflicting, wavering positions that do not help peace

As first lady of the United States, Hillary Clinton was the darling of Palestinians and Arabs when late in Bill Clinton’s term she uttered the hot button word: Palestine. Since then, she has been swinging depending on the political winds.

As a senator for the state of New York, she became a staunch Israeli supporter, standing by Israel whether justifiably or not. To win the US presidency, she continued this pro-Israel stance, but as secretary of state in the Obama administration, she flipped back.

Shortly after being sworn in and speaking on Al Jazeera TV (that in itself is a change of Washington’s bias, according to Al Arrabiya TV), Clinton stressed clearly and unambiguously the Obama administration’s rejection of any settlement activities, including "natural growth". Barack Obama’s, Clinton’s and Middle East envoy George Mitchell’s unity on this prerequisite of the roadmap was welcome by Palestinians living under occupation.

It is not hard to understand why everyone who supports a two-state solution sees Jewish settlement activities as a knife in the heart of what will become the Palestinian state. Previous, as well as current, US administrations consider the creation of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state in the "national interest" of the United States. It follows that any actions that directly block the chances of such a state are against US national interests, and not just against Palestinian interests.

So, it was another shock when Clinton met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and pressed him to enter negotiations with Israel even if the latter does not comply with the international community’s demand to freeze settlement activity.

Instead of placing pressure on the guilty party, Clinton considered Abbas’ position a precondition, while lavishing praise on right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for agreeing to build "only" 3,000 more settlement units in the West Bank and continuing to irritate Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Sixteen years earlier, Palestinians in the occupied territories were surprised to hear that the PLO had reached a secret deal with Israel in Oslo. When Haidar Abdul Shafi, who headed the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid peace conference, learned that it didn’t include a settlement freeze, he and many other Palestinians publicly opposed it. Since then, the demand that Israel completely freeze all settlement construction (including those attributed to natural growth) has become a litmus test of whether the Israelis are serious about peace.

Jewish settlements built on land occupied by Israel in 1967 are considered by the international community illegal and in clear violation of the Geneva Convention, which is aimed at regulating military occupations. More recently, in 2004, the International Court of Justice at The Hague unanimously ruled that the settlements were illegal when considering an appeal against Israel for building a wall inside Palestinian territories. Successive US administrations have also repeatedly rejected settlement activity.

For the US, the settlements proved to be an obstacle, obstructing both Republican and Democratic diplomacy. Former president Jimmy Carter believed he had a commitment to freeze settlements at Camp David. The Clinton administration attempted to put brakes on then-prime minister Netanyahu’s efforts to construct a new settlement near Bethlehem. After a short hiatus, construction resumed.

Today, Har Homa, built on Jabal Abu Ghneim with the aim of cutting off Bethlehem from Jerusalem, is home to 19,000 settlers. Some of the new settlements that Netanyahu wants to continue building are in the same settlement that president Clinton opposed.

Jeff Aronson, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, concludes that Israeli leaders will continue to be able to fool their American counterparts on this issue. Some Israeli right-wing leaders like Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Netanyahu trumpet their settlement achievements. Others, including Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert "talked left and built right".

The UN Security Council has ruled against settlements on numerous occasions, directly or as a prelude to various resolutions. Ironically, and as a result of the uproar by Arab leaders about Clinton’s pro-Israel statements, Clinton went to Morocco and told Arab foreign ministers that while what Netanyahu has done is "unprecedented" it is still doesn’t meet the US expectations.

"This offer falls far short of what we would characterize as our position or what our preference would be," she added.

"But if it is acted upon, it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth."

Note the "if acted upon".

After all these conflicting signals, many Palestinians would like to know what the real position of the US secretary of state is.