Middle East

Obama-Abbas: It Starts with the Settlements

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during meetings in the White House on May 28. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The main conclusion emerging from the meeting last week between U.S. President Barack Obama and P.L.O. President Mahmoud Abbas is that the United States continues to be dead serious about its demand that Israel immediately freeze all settlement activities. Considering all the hot button topics, some might argue that issues of withdrawal, Jerusalem, and the Palestinian right of return, ought to be much more important. So why has the demand to freeze settlement activity become the defining issue?

Sixteen years ago, Palestinians in the occupied territories were surprised to hear that the P.L.O. had reached a secret deal with Israel in the Norwegian capital Oslo. At that time, the now late Haidar Abdel Shafi, who headed the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid peace conference, asked Ahmad Qurei (Abu Ala) if the agreement included a settlement freeze. When learning that it didn't, 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 lands occupied by Israel in 1967 are considered by the international community to be illegal and in clear violation of the fourth Geneva Convention, which is aimed at regulating prolonged occupations. More recently, in 2004, the International Court of Justice at the Hague ruled that the settlements were illegal when considering an appeal against Israel for building a wall inside Palestinian territories.

Successive U.S. administrations have also repeatedly rejected settlement activity, but have shifted from calling it "illegal" during the Carter administration to calling it an "obstacle to peace" now. The U.N. Security Council has also ruled against settlements on numerous occasions, directly or as a prelude to various resolutions.

For decades, the Israelis have been building settlements on confiscated Palestinian land. All the while they have been playing games with the international community; from arguing that Jews have a right to build anywhere they choose (a right that they deny Palestinians in parts of the West Bank, Jerusalem and pre '67 Israel) to the more recent claim raised in connection with the Netanyahu-Obama meeting that Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories have a right to "natural growth."

Settlement activities, including "natural growth," are clearly rejected by the Road Map agreement that Israel signed and the Knesset approved. Even the far-right-wing Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Leiberman, said on his first day in office that Israel accepts the Road Map (while emphasizing his rejection of the two-state solution as it is defined by the Annapolis Agreement).

The Bush administration and President Obama's team have both publicly supported the creation of a viable contiguous Palestinian state, defining it as a "national interest" of the United States. It follows that continued Jewish settlement in areas slated for the Palestinian state—which obviously work to undermine the prospect of a two-state solution—is contrary to the U.S. national interest. It should be no surprise then that Palestinians are pleased that Washington is finally serious about at least this one crucial aspect of the conflict. If the present administration continues in the same vain, many Palestinians who want to see the end of the occupation might be willing to wait for the logical outcome of negotiations even if they take a while.

Whether the negotiations are swift or prolonged, the one specific aspect that worries Palestinians is how these "facts on the ground" will shape the final outcome. President Abbas has actively fought against any attempts to resolve the Palestinian conflict with Israel in a violent way. But if his diplomatic approach will not stop the settlement growth, he will face a real dilemma.

In June 1967 and after Israeli troops occupied Palestinian lands, the U.N. Security Council in the preamble to resolution 242 called this occupation "inadmissible." Today, 42 years later, and after hundreds of illegal settlements built on occupied Palestinian land, the issue of freezing construction in the settlements has become a defining issue for peace in the region.

While negotiations require concessions from all parties, mistrust and unfulfilled commitments have been the main obstacles to peace in the region. Palestinians need to address Israel's security concerns and the Israelis need to understand Palestinian aspirations for freedom and statehood. Settlement activities provide a concrete reminder to Palestinians that the world community is unable to enforce this simple but crucial prerequisite for peace. The designers of the Road Map placed obligations on both sides. Fulfilling these obligations will go a long way towards creating the proper environment for talks that can lead to peace and security for Israelis and independence for Palestinians.

This article was originally published on Common Ground New Service, www.commongroundnews.org.

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