By all accounts, settlement construction is at the core of this next round of peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. If the current freeze is extended, a powerful settlers group is vowing to undermine Israeli Prime Minister’s government; and if construction resumes, Palestinian Authority President Mamoud Abbas threatens to walk away.
But the settlement issue is a true red herring that obfuscates the truth about what lies at the core of the Middle East conflict – Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. The occupation is so integral to the facts on the ground that this current round of talks – like all previous peace process efforts over the past 20 years – will fail unless Israel ends its illegal occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.
Peace is rarely the result of a process. When have two sides ever signed a ‘peace process’ instead of a ‘peace treaty?’ Talks that result in peace treaties occur when the playing field between the two opposing sides is relatively equal. There is a victor and a vanquished, but they negotiate based upon mutual principals of sovereignty. There are stated goals and outcomes.
This is not the case between the Palestinians and Israel.
There is no level playing field between the occupier and occupied. And the basic conditions for serious talks do not exist. Israel does not recognize Palestinians’ rights and claims; refuses to abide by any freeze on settlement construction – especially in Jerusalem – and continues to demolish Palestinians’ homes and to confiscate their land. Ending the occupation of Palestine – including lifting the siege on Gaza – is something that should be a precursor to serious peace talks, not a goal to be achieved afterward.
Israel demands that Palestinians come to the table with no preconditions. Yet Netanyahu has no problem demanding Palestinians guarantee security for Israeli citizens as a precondition. How absurd! Israel is demanding that the demilitarized, occupied Palestinians guarantee security for the country that violently occupies them – a country that possesses one of the mightiest militaries in the world. To be sure, everyone has a right to security. But Israel has it backwards. International law stipulates the occupier must provide for the security of the people it occupies. For Israel to come to the table while still violating international law with impunity seriously undermines any pretense its leaders make regarding their sincerity about negotiating for peace.
Indeed, a recently released video, aired on Israel Channel 10, seems to indicate that Netanyahu did not take peace talks in the 1990s seriously. On the video, he can be heard bragging about how he ‘destroyed the Oslo process.’
“America is something that can be easily moved. Moved to the right direction … they won’t get in our way … Eighty percent of them support us. It’s absurd,” he said in the video. Sadly, there hasn’t been much in his current behavior that contradicts this arrogance and disdain for peace negotiations.
That’s because prolonged talks benefit Israel and as such create a situation where there is no real incentive for Israel to forge peace. In fact, it is widely known now that Oslo’s real outcome was to consolidate Israel’s iron grip on the Palestinian territories and to allow it to secure more land for itself while quashing any amount of justified Palestinian resistance.
Since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, settlements have increased by 300 percent; the illegal settler population in the West Bank has doubled to 300,000 and in East Jerusalem the number of settlers has grown from almost nothing to 200,000, according to Israeli human rights group Peace Now. Settlements now consume more than 40 percent of the West Bank. Jewish-only bypass roads, the Apartheid Wall – which the International Court of Justice said violated international law — and more than 600 roadblocks and checkpoints have combined to push Palestinians into isolated Bantustans. Unemployment has skyrocketed while the per capita GDP has tumbled from $1,406 in 1994 to $1,290 in 2008, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
Furthermore, Palestinians largely don’t support this new round of talks; 700 prominent Palestinians in the West Bank – including leaders of all PLO factions – signed a statement opposing the resumption of talks, according to media reports.
Israel’s occupation of Palestine is illegal, and Israel has never attempted to comply with UN resolutions 242 and 338, which call for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem and to agree on a ‘just and durable peace,’ respectively. Israel continues to deprive Palestinians of their basic human rights and to the minimum quality of life guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In these conditions, it is impossible to establish the mutual trust that is needed for talks to accomplish peace.
The United States must finally step up and prove it can be an honest broker in the peace process by demanding that Israel end the occupation of Palestine. The U.S. can and should tie foreign aid payments to Israel’s compliance with international law and its progress on human rights. After all, it has done this before. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush withheld $10 billion in loan guarantees to force Israel to cease settlement construction in the West Bank. And in 1993, the U.S. State Department threatened to withhold $100 million in U.S. aid to the Palestinians unless Yasser Arafat signed the Taba treaty with the Israelis, with which he disagreed.
By becoming a truly neutral and honest broker in the peace process, the United States would strengthen its standing in the Arab and Muslim worlds, which also would strengthen our national security interests at home and abroad. It would help the U.S. reclaim its position as the arbiter of human rights — that proverbial beacon of light that brings hope to oppressed people around the world. And, finally, it finally could bring peace and justice to the Middle East and an end to the occupation of the Palestinian people.