Israel Announces New Plan for Settlements

A contribution from NESA interns, Maryam Arshad and Madison Barton.

This past Friday Israel published bids for 450 new settlements in the West Bank approximately 425 acres from A-Nahla, a Palestinian village. The West Bank and Gaza Strip are areas occupied by Israel since 1967, but feature a predominantly Palestinian populationIsrael purposefully established the E2 settlement, also known as Givat Eitam, east of the West Bank border, physically bisecting the West Bank territory. In 2004 Israel took control of the area and Palestinian landowners appealed to no avail. Since then, in October 2013 the E2 area has been designated as agricultural farming area, a guise for an influx of settlers into the Palestinian owned land. The location of the proposed settlement would effectively block Bethlehem from south West Bank, essentially constructing an obstruction to any future two state solution.

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Settlements have previously been established in this region, but announcements of new Israeli settlers have been followed by outrage at the actions of the current administration in IsraelThe United States and European Union have denounced Netanyahu’s plans as being illegitimate and illegal. In fact the Israeli settlements are a violation of the IV Geneva Convention, which is in place to protect the rights of civilians during war. Because the settlements are a method of creating conditions on the ground that inflate Israeli numbers, it is seen as an affront to the Palestinian civilians who are living on the land. Peace Now, an organization that advocates a two state solution, argues that the settlements could jeopardize a future for a possible two state Israel-Palestine agreement. The Palestinian Liberation Organization went as far to call these settlements war crimes, urging the International Criminal Court to thwart Israeli advances.

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It is no secret though, that Israeli settlements of the sort have existed for quite some time. So how much of a hindrance are these settlements to a prospective two state solution? Foreign Policy believes they are inconsequential to any future negotiations or deliberations between the two parties. Perhaps it is true that the settlements in question would not do much to make Israel stronger or Palestine weaker, but the issue of settlements speaks to a larger issue of Israel continuously pushing its boundaries in the international community, hoping to garner more and more for their interests, without regard for international law.

Just recently Netanyahu’s snub of President Obama, by accepting an invitation from the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, to speak to the United States Congress illustrates just how far the Israeli Prime Minister is willing to push even his closest ally. International diplomatic relations are traditionally performed by the respective heads of state, and by not asking or even informing President Obama of his presence in the United States legislature, Netanyahu has severely strained ties with the President. Furthermore, as the International Criminal Court has introduced investigations into Palestinian territory to uncover possible war crimes in the region, Israel could face ramifications for its policies, including the settlement advances. So then, are these announcements just symbolic pushes of Israeli power?

Maps from BBC and Peace Now 

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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2014 Israel-Palestine Peace Talks and Complications

A contribution from NESA intern, Yevin Jayatilake.

After numerous failed prospects for peace, it was no surprise that the latest series of negotiations between Israel and Palestine with heavy U.S. involvement, came to a dead end.  There were many hiccups throughout the process that started in August 2013 and ended abruptly in late April, with Israel citing the unification between Fatah-Hamas as the reason for failure. The second term of President Obama’s presidency was supposed to focus on the pivot to East Asia. This move by the administration was seen as an attempt by critics to steer away from the ongoing complications of the Middle East. However, with the appointment of Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S foreign policy remained focused on the Arab world, targeting the very complicated Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Secretary Kerry gave himself a timeline of nine months to make an attempt at successful negotiation. From Kerry’s point of view, those nine months would not need to have rendered a deal, rather the opportunity to extend the negotiations.

The United States brokered the deal between Israel and Palestine, and was the only one that remained committed throughout the nine month process. As a gesture of goodwill by the Israeli government, 104 Palestinian prisoners were to be freed in four batches, in order to keep the Palestinian leadership involved in the latest round of talks. Through the latter half of 2013 into 2014, the relationships between Israel, Palestine and the United States were stable and the possibilities of concessions were on the table. Towards the end of March 2014, the thread keeping the peace talks together started to break apart. The Israeli government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that they would not release the fourth batch of 26 prisoners, unless the Palestinian leadership decided to extend peace talks for at least another six months. For a very reasonable demand on behalf of the Israeli government, who took severe backlash for releasing what many Israelis viewed as terrorists, the Palestinian negotiators made every attempt to divert and point blame back at the other side. In the middle of this tense moment, Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel decided to issue 700 new housing tenders in the expanded settlement areas of the West Bank. The issue of settlement construction is extremely delicate to the Palestinian identity, and this put a wrench in the middle of the talks. Many U.S. officials blame Uri Ariel for the collapse of the talks, citing it was not the correct time to push expansions through. Ariel has long been to the right in Israel’s conservative party Habayit Hayehudi.

 After learning of this situation, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed 15 international treaties, declaring Palestine an independent state. Since that declaration on April 1, Secretary Kerry was trying desperately to bring the two sides to collaboration, but the leadership was so rigid on their motives, that no negotiating could undo the damage. On April 23, President Abbas declared a unity Fatah-Hamas pact, which ended any chance for reconciliation. Hamas, which is declared as a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel, does not accept Israel’s right to exist. At the culmination of the tensions, Israel decided to suspend negotiations, citing that they could not continue discussions any longer, while Hamas is a part of any legitimate Palestinian government.

The implications of this collapse are far greater than either side would like to admit. Each side is more content with delaying legitimate peace offers than trying to figure out a solution to the severely complicated problem. Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas stick to their stories and claim they cannot go back to their communities with any compromises to the other side. However, as the two sides keep delaying a resolution to the never-ending conflict, Israel becomes more vast and powerful, and the future of the state of Palestine becomes ever more complicated. With Israel expanding into Areas B and C in the West Bank and continuing to have blockades surrounding the Gaza Strip, there becomes less hope for Palestinians to have a unified land.

The situation is not only a tragedy because of the constant terror and instability that Palestinian citizens face on a daily basis, but the situation continues to grow worse with every skirmish. The leadership of both states are too rigid, and so long as they are unwilling to compromise, at even the most micro level, then no true peace can occur. The intention of the leaders as they entered the peace deals in mid-2013 was not to achieve legitimate talks, but instead to continue the status quo for as long as possible. Knowing that neither side would agree to concede on controversial topics like Jerusalem and expanded settlements, the basis of the talks was more to make an appearance of cooperation to the world. In order to move forward with any logical approach to this conflict, President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu must work together and put aside their inflexible agendas, sort out a solution, and then present it to their communities. It will not be an effortless motion; however, with the heads of both states cooperating, and support from the international community, an agreement can be reached that gratifies communities on both sides.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

The President Goes to Jerusalem

The overall opinion of President Obama’s tour of Israel and the Palestinian Territories seems to agree that the President unleashed a “corker” of a speech. We are led to understand that, by acknowledging Israeli’s fears and humanizing the Palestinians, the President has done an excellent job at recasting the situation and rising above the leadership of the respective parties. Essentially, Obama took his argument to the Israeli people, recognizing the “futility” of hoping for progress with Netanyahu.

However, this speech may be much less of a success than it appears. In fact, this speech signals a significant defeat for the President. In his first term, Obama tried to maintain that halting the construction of new settlements was of paramount importance to getting negotiations to move forward. While the current talk certainly disparages settlements, it no longer views them as an impediment to negotiations:

What I shared with President Abbas, and I’ll share it with the Palestinian people: if the expectation is we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there’s no point in the negotiations.

Chalk one up for Bibi. As has been mentioned before in this blog, the new Israeli coalition is likely to be inward looking. Any attempts at peacemaking will put incredible strains on the coalition. However, now that the settlement issue has been removed from the table as a precondition for talks the government the new Housing Minister, Uri Ariel, may freely pursue his policy of enhanced settlement construction. While Obama may be correct that there need be no need for preconditions for negotiations to commence, this move will be deeply disappointing to Palestinians.

The thought that keeps pushing through is that, as great as this speech is, it would have been even more excellent had it taken place in January, before Israeli elections. The time to encourage a people to influence their people is before an election, not after. While public opinion is always relevant in a democracy, it is incredibly more so in the lead up to an election.

The other issue here, mentioned above, is Palestinian disappointment. To quote from a pro-Fatah Palestinian newspaper:

What did Obama do? He repeated his previous positions and announced them in Israel and Palestine. He therefore does not oppose a Palestinian state but he did not say how such a state can be established. Furthermore, he did not demand from Israel that it stops settlement activity in order to have successful negotiations.

Whereas in Israel Obama was greeted by children cheering, his reception in the Territories was glum.

Unfortunately it looks as if Obama may have made an excellent speech that will have little to no effect on the ground. Of course, I would love to be proved wrong.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.