A Freeze On Mideast Politics


Haven’t we seen this before?

This past Sunday, one of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ top aides said, “The resumption of [peace] talks requires tangible steps, the first of them a freeze on settlements.”

It’s hard not to be overcome with a sense of déjà vu. Ten months ago, Israel ordered a 10-month freeze on settlement building, with the hopes of resuming peace talks. So what happened? Peace talks did resume, just last month. That was all well and good, until the Palestinians decided to play games.

When the Palestinians say the resumption of talks requires Israeli action, this is where we disagree. The only action needed by both sides to come to the negotiating table is a short car ride. Both sides have their concerns — Israel is concerned with regional security while the Palestinian people want the West Bank and Gaza to grow into a bona fide nation-state. Solutions to these concerns can only be made when Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas are in the same room.

It has always been made crystal clear, in both public and private channels, that Israel’s settlement freeze was a one-time confidence-building measure to facilitate the Palestinians entering into direct talks. The Palestinians were livid with the freeze, calling it unacceptable. They chose to sit on the sidelines for the first nine months. Then, in a predictable if not also politically savvy move, they began calling for an extension of the freeze. The moratorium that less than a year ago hardly made them bat an eye is now seen as essential for the peace process.

Apparently, the settlement freeze has magically gained importance right when it can be used as a political football. How convenient. Despite the constant headlines in the American press of “settlements as obstacles to peace,” history presents a pretty strong rebuttal. Peace was achieved with Egypt and Jordan, the Oslo Accords were signed with the Palestinians, and the disengagement from Gaza all happened with the issue of settlements hardly “looming in the background.” Not once in the 17 years of the peace process has a moratorium on settlement construction been ordered, let alone even asked by the Palestinians.

Hillary Clinton called the 10-month freeze “unprecedented,” but the Palestinian reaction was all too predictable. We essentially extended the olive branch, and for nine months, rather than grasping it, the Palestinians have sharpened that branch so they can accuse us of pointing a spear at them. The Palestinians waited until the settlement freeze was only weeks from expiring before acknowledging its “importance.”

If the Palestinians do believe that settlements are the key obstacle to peace, they need to sit with us and discuss what we need to do, together. As our prime minister said, Israel is ready to put everything on the table in negotiations. The resolution of any and all issues, whether they are settlements, borders or water, will be decided as a result of peace talks, not imposed as a precondition.

Since the 2003 Roadmap Agreement, no new Jewish settlements have been constructed. The narrative that Israelis are going “manifest destiny” on the West Bank is bogus. With this latest development, it’s not hard to feel as if the Palestinians care more about the freeze than they do about the larger issue of peace itself. But I believe that Mahmoud Abbas is an honest individual, and the majority of his people do sincerely desire peace. Israel has lived up to its end of the bargain; it is time for President Abbas to come back to negotiations.

Joel Lion is consul for media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York.