Ten months ago Israel agreed to a U.S. request (Washington never demands) for a freeze in new settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. What they got wasn’t really a freeze, more a slight cooling. They called it a moratorium. And that moratorium expired Sunday night. The press coverage was breathless, reporting every phone call between the various parties. Pundits analyzed the significance of which leaders were talking from which cities, who flew home and who remained in Washington. One interviewer asked me if it was important that Secretary of State Clinton had called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas just before the deadline. (It wasn’t.)
At the end of the day, the talks will almost certainly continue with or without a settlement freeze – but does that really matter?
Unfortunately, as long as these talks continue in their current framework – accepting as legitimate the vast disparity of power between Israel and the Palestinians, and acting as if the two sides, occupying power and occupied population, somehow come to the table as equals – the answer is no. As long as the U.S. defines its “honest broker” role as providing unlimited financial, military, diplomatic and political support for Israel while offering only face-saving to the Palestinian leaders, and as long as the talks are not based on the requirements of international law – the answer will be no.
It doesn’t matter whether this particular round of talks goes forward or not. (The last high-profile U.S.-brokered talks involving Prime Minister Netanyahu and leading to an agreement that was never implemented, were negotiated at Maryland’s Wye River in 1998 with PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat – and it wasn’t called the “Wye Bother” summit for nothing.)
The 10-month settlement moratorium that just ended was filled with loopholes: it only included new housing starts. It allowed continued building of many infrastructure projects, of housing that had already been approved, of anything that had already started – and it never applied to occupied Arab East Jerusalem. The “compromise” that will likely emerge in coming days will talk about putting off the question of settlements, and starting instead with borders – ostensibly an “easier” issue. It means that the first agreement will be on how much West Bank land – the 22 percent left of historic Palestine – the Palestinians must give up to official Israeli annexation before they can even talk about settlements. And it means that in the meantime, settlement expansion throughout Arab East Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank continues without restriction.
That’s the consequence of the U.S. approach to these peace talks: treat the two parties as if they were equals. Make both sides compromise. Make both sides recognize the legitimacy of the other’s position. All fine if the conflict is a border dispute between sovereign states. But when one side is an occupied people, dispossessed and divided, and the other side, the Occupying Power, is the strongest military force in the region and backed unqualifiedly by the most powerful country in the world, the call for “both sides” to “compromise” is a call for victory for the powerful, and defeat for the rights of the weaker side.