At first glance Washington’s sudden support for extending Israel’s settlement “freeze” in the West Bank appears to be typical 11th hour positioning at Sharm el-Sheikh. Having delayed until the final moments in hope of reaching a compromise with the Palestinian Authority (PA), US officials must now rush to strike a deal before September 26th, when the “freeze” expires and direct negotiations between Israel and the PA potentially collapse.
President Barack Obama initiated the call for an extension of the “freeze” on September 10th, followed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday and US envoy George Mitchell on Tuesday.
That America’s credibility in the Middle East, along with Obama’s, hangs in the balance has provided the necessary fuel to break Washington’s pro-Israel stance. With one indirect round of negotiations already scuttled and widespread pessimism harassing the current negotiations, the White House cannot afford for direct talks to collapse so prematurely. America’s ability as an independent mediator would be subjected to new doubt, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict left to drift into September’s UN Security Council meeting, US Congressional elections, and Obama’s December review of the Afghan war.
Embarrassment would be an understatement.
America seems to have no other choice if a settlement “freeze” is the only means of keeping Palestinians in negotiations, especially in light of Egypt’s reiteration for an extension. But it should be no mystery why US officials are so supportive of a settlement “freeze” - the “freeze” is no freeze at all. As Obama said himself, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has significantly reduced settlement construction in the region.” Many reports can be found over the last ten months alleging the same idea - that settlement construction has slowed but not halted.
Further allegations claim that Israel builds in undefined areas and thus off the grid. Why does it makes sense for US to extend the “freeze?” Because a “freeze” still allows for settlement planning, approval, and construction.
In one way this strategy makes sense. The Palestinians are adamant on a true freeze, fully aware of the difference between Israel’s public statements and its action on the ground. Without any limitation on Israeli settlements they have no domestic support for continuing negotiations - they need a “freeze” in the West Bank to maintain their dignity. Thus America’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is essentially the compromise needed to keep negotiations alive.
Unfortunately Israel doesn’t appear to see this logic. That Netanyahu faces his own domestic pressure from Israeli settlers is valid, but stiff resistance to freezing settlement construction seems driven by ulterior motives. Though Israeli officials complain that the Palestinians are running their mouths to reporters while they keep quiet, Netanyahu doesn’t miss an opportunity to cast PA President Mahmoud Abbas as the main obstacle to a two-state solution.
"The end of the settlement freeze must not be allowed to foil the talks," Netanyahu told Abbas. "We have taken on an ambitious mission of reaching agreement within a year and we must focus on that."
Netanyahu’s behavior makes his intentions clear: to make Abbas cave, not cave himself. Direct negotiations are progressing more like a game of chicken and Netanyahu has no intention of blinking. Both he and his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, have publicly ruled out an extension to the “freeze,” realizing that their worst-case scenario still allows for discreet construction. While new reports surface of an Interior Ministry committee discussion over hundreds of new units in East Jerusalem, Netanyahu is deploying the usual substitutes of prisoner releases and checkpoint removals.
By offering “confidence-building measures” in place of an actual settlement freeze, Netanyahu hopes to force Abbas out of negotiations while simultaneously blaming him for their collapse. The “freeze” will end, allowing him to build unrestricted until America can corral the two sides for a new round of negotiations. The Palestinians, sensing Netanyahu’s trap, have held their line on a settlement moratorium while privately backtracking from their absolutist position.
But while they stand a good chance of accepting America’s version of a “freeze,” anything less is likely to veto further direct negotiations. Palestinians surely realize that America won’t be able to deliver anything else if not this, and must steadfastly hold to their demands.
Washington has 12 days to clean up a toxic mess partially of its own creation. Polar reports out of Sharm indicate the odds favor collapse over compromise, with Netanyahu’s spokesman claiming "substantive issues'' were addressed and the Palestinians noticeably frustrated with the Israel’s priorities. “We continue our efforts to make progress, and we believe that we are moving in the right direction over all,” Mitchell said at a news conference afterward.
Al Jazeera’s Nour Odeh reported the Palestinian viewpoint from Bethlehem: “Americans came pretty much empty handed... They [US negotiators] had no solution to bridge the gap between Palestinians and Israelis.”
One thing is certain. If America can’t even secure a partial settlement freeze from Israel, Palestinians will feel no urge to trust America’s arbitration over all final status issues. Only false hope would anticipate fair judgment over refugees and Jerusalem when Washington still protects Israeli settlement construction. Washington coerced the Palestinians to direct talks in the first place by claiming settlements would be addressed within the first month of direct negotiations. As a result Palestinian officials need something tangible to show their people, not the image of Netanyahu weaseling out of his obligations under America's blind eye.
Sharm has become child’s play, with one Western diplomat remarking of Washington’s summit, "They feel they've got to give it some momentum. It’s a way of getting them past the settlement freeze."
A few summits won’t “get the Palestinians past the settlement freeze.” In fact, holding another summit in Jerusalem throws settlements in their face. Palestinian spokesperson Ghassan Khatib warned that “progress” in direct talks would not soften the Palestinians’ demands. "Nothing can compensate the need for cessation of settlement activities. Everything else is meaningless.”
America agrees, but only out of the need to protect Israel and itself. The Palestinians come last as usual - not the way to equitably resolve one of the world’s most lopsided conflicts.