For Netanyahu, to Freeze or Not to Freeze is the Question

A follow-up to this article will certainly be written after September 25, the cutoff date for the end of the Israeli government’s so-called moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank. For now, however, the question is whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will heed to the probable pressure from US President Barack Obama to extend the freeze or will he kowtow to his right-wing ministers and settlers who demand that the freeze end just as Bibi promised?

It’s a tough call, if all the factors are taken into consideration. For one, Benjamin Netanyahu is hardly a dove himself, heading the right-wing Likud party and espousing a less than generous "economic" peace for the Palestinians as opposed to any real sovereignty or independence. He also reassured his hard-line supporters that the freeze would only be "temporary", 10-months to be exact and would not include east Jerusalem, public buildings or structures that were already underway when the freeze was announced. That leaves a mighty big loophole for which settlements could continue expanding, which they did throughout this period. According to Settlement Watch, a branch of the Israeli organization Peace Now, settlers scrambled to authorize construction before the freeze last November so that building during the 10-month period would be "legitimate." As a result, says the organization’s coordinator Hagit Ofran as quoted in the Guardian, "more than 2,000 housing units were already under construction in West Bank settlements three quarters of the way through the freeze."

Still, the settlers and their supporters are gearing up to move full speed ahead with settlement expansion once the September 25 deadline has ended. Tens of thousands of housing units have already obtained approval and are waiting for the go-ahead. If Netanyahu decides to extend the moratorium, he is sure to face a mighty fury.

The question for Palestinians, however, is not really a question at all. It is more of an unfortunate reality and a realization that if the framework for discourse is not shifted altogether, whether Netanyahu declares an extension to the freeze or not is pretty much irrelevant. Facts and history prove this to be true. Let us start with the facts. Under international law, all settlements, including those in east Jerusalem are illegal given that they are built on occupied land. By default, that would mean that settlers are also illegally squatting on the land. If that is so, it seems absolutely ridiculous that any negotiations over settlements are conducted at all. The only discussion that should be conducted is on how to remove them and the sanctions to be imposed on Israel for violating the law.

Since it is too late for that – today, there are approximately 300,000 settlers living in the West Bank and another 200,000 living in east Jerusalem settlements –” let us settle the score from the past. Sixteen years ago, late President Yasser Arafat and his late Israeli counterpart Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn and signed the historical Declaration of Principles (aka the Oslo Accords). The Accords were to be a benchmark for peace, calling for a permanent solution based on UN Security Council Resolution 242. Oslo 2, signed two years later implicitly demanded a freeze in settlement activity, stipulating that, "Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations." Apparently, even under Rabin, the "dove" and recipient (along with Arafat) of the Nobel Peace Prize, settlement expansion on expropriated Palestinian land, did not constitute such steps. Starting at around 110,000 settlers in the West Bank in 1993, this number has jumped to 300,000 today.

Hence, history has proven to us Palestinians and to the world that irrespective of the Israeli government in office and regardless of the agreements signed (the Roadmap offered similar stipulations), settlements have spread like a cancerous growth throughout Palestine. Israel has succeeded in violating every possible clause of every possible agreement where settlements are involved regardless of President Obama’s good intentions or the UN’s watery statements. Israel has come to learn that, barring the proverbial slap on the wrist, it can basically do what it pleases in its bid to realize its long-term goal: grabbing as much possible land in as little amount of time and preventing any possibility of the creation of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.

This is why there needs to be a shift in the discourse because 18 years of negotiations along these lines have failed miserably. The Palestinian government continues to tow the official line of Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 borders but in practice it has allowed too much leeway for Israel (and the US) to manipulate. New lines must be drawn and new conditions for talks must be set down. We all know that the Palestinians are under immense pressure to return to the negotiating table with Israel. Keeping in the US’s good graces while trying to appease their own people has long been the leadership’s balancing game. However, there must be a point when we say that enough is enough and recognize that the path we have chosen may be riddled with too many holes to make any tangible progress.

We are now in that position. Whether Netanyahu decides against his own contingency and extends the settlement "freeze" or not, we need to keep our priorities straight because whether the freeze is lifted now or in another six months, settlements will continue to grow regardless. We must have the courage to say no, an irrevocable ‘no’ to all settlements, because that is a basic right. We are not demanding anything more than international law affords us and we should accept nothing less. Now that we know the old strategies have not worked, it is high time for something new.