Constructing Middle East Peace

Amid political infighting, Israel may lose critical allies

By Rachel Brody, CMC ’12

israelBy now, political impasse and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have become nearly synonymous. Israeli officials refuse to recognize Palestinian territories and object to imposing construction restrictions. The Palestinian Authority remains rigid in its demands for both an immediate settlement freeze in East Jerusalem and a promise to negotiate borders. Yet recent events in the region have created a particularly discouraging development in the road to peace.

While the frustrations all too familiar to the Middle East conflict have caused friction between Israel and its American ally, tensions intensified during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Jerusalem in early March. In direct defiance of the Obama administration’s demands, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced its approval of Ramat Shlomo, a settlement of 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem. Biden, who had visited to reaffirm American commitment to Israeli security, said he condemned the decision; Secretary of State Hilary Clinton described the announcement as an “affront” and an “insult” to the United States.

President Obama was not happy either. Under the leadership of George Mitchell, U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East, his administration has pushed for a new dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians. These “proximity talks” are the first in a series of “confidence-building steps” to reaffirm two-party discussions. But Israel’s continued dismissal of Palestinian demands, including a halt in settlements in Jerusalem, bodes poorly for future regional cooperation and may impede fruitful relations with the United States.

When the news broke concerning Ramat Shlomo, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attested he had only recently heard of the announcement. Indeed, Eli Yishai, the issuer of the recent settlement plans, is a member of a right-wing party both in opposition to Netanyahu and currently a part of Israel’s coalition government. While the governing parties have disagreed, Netanyahu has publicly declared his support for Jewish homes in East Jerusalem: “No government for the last 40 years has agreed to place restrictions on building in Jerusalem.” He should have added, “And neither will I,” because of his apparent unwillingness to stray from past precedent and comply with some Palestinian demands.

Whether or not Netanyahu prompted the new settlement announcement coinciding with Biden’s visit, pushback from the Israeli government on this issue is overwhelming. Israel needs a serious attitude makeover; it must take a hard look at its place in the international community and consider whether its inflammatory actions merit devastating any plans for peace in the Middle East. Though Biden made clear American intentions to cooperate with Israel, the Obama administration’s patience is waning.
To begin, Israel should examine its own people. Though a majority of the population favors construction in East Jerusalem, a sizable minority advocates freezing settlements during negotiations. In a Dahaf Research Institute poll released just after Biden’s visit, 51% of Israelis objected to and 46% supported restrictions on building settlements. Despite the majority view, the public’s increasing support for Obama and increasing suspicion of Netanyahu and his policies, could eventually mean the adoption of a vital step in the peace process: the settlement freeze in East Jerusalem.

But even with increasing Israeli support for President Obama, the two allies are diverging. General David Petraeus, Commander of the U.S. Central Command, has reported that stalled peace efforts are provoking anti-American feelings in the Middle East region. Obama echoed these concerns, telling Netanyahu that his actions threatened the security of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan: “That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace.”

Discontent with Israeli policies goes beyond the U.S. In the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and imposed Israeli law. Nonetheless, the international community has continually refused to recognize the annexation and deems Jewish settlements in the region illegal. The European Union has publicly stated its opposition to increasing settlements in the West Bank. So have Russia and the United Nations, albeit in less concrete terms. Simply put, Israel is running out of countries to turn to for support.

But the issues associated with continuing settlements span well beyond thwarting American interests and disregarding the international community. No matter the disagreements in motivation, violence on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides is indisputable, and settlement building has only intensified the severity of the human rights situation.
David Shulman, author of Dark Hope and a professor of humanistic studies at the University of Jerusalem, has voiced his opposition to Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and Hebron, a city in the West Bank. In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Shulman wrote, “No one who regularly visits the Palestinian territories controlled by Israel has to speculate about whether or not Israel is engaged in the routine abuse of human rights.”

When Shulman spoke at Claremont McKenna’s Athenaeum on April 27, his words undoubtedly ruffled a few feathers, but his assertions holds true. Israeli human rights organizations in the region, such as B’Tselem, have documented these abuses: discrimination in planning, building, and demolition of houses; unfairly revoking residency rights; and harming infrastructure in East Jerusalem through physical isolation from the remainder of the West Bank. In a statement on its website, the organization condemns current policies and maintains that “Israel’s policy gravely infringes the rights of residents of East Jerusalem and flagrantly breaches international law.” According to B’Tselem, 289 Palestinian residencies were revoked in 2007. In response to B’Tselem’s inquiries, the Ministry of Interior justified revoking residencies largely because these Palestinians had become citizens or permanent residents of another country.

This does not mean that the Palestinians are wholly innocent in either the settlement affair or violent conflicts in the occupied territories. As Shulman says, “None of this happened in a vacuum.” During the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising beginning in late 2000, Palestinian violence in East Jerusalem killed over 1,000 Israelis. Recently, Palestinian youth protesters demonstrated violently against Israeli riot police, and Hamas has continued to call for hostile action toward Israeli occupation in the West Bank and elsewhere.

Yet despite violence and destruction on “the other” side, Shulman believes evidence of comparable violence makes a wobbly foundation on which to ground Israeli justifications for settlements. “So does it help me, as an Israeli,” he writes, “to be told – by Robert Bernstein in a New York Times op-ed – that, so far as human rights abuses are concerned, Israel’s record is considerably better than that of various neighboring ‘authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records’? It does not.”

The announcement of new settlements in East Jerusalem hit those working toward two-party talks hard. With continued disregard for human rights abuses and its seemingly never-ending campaign of land expropriation, Israel treads a fine line with its sparse allies. Whatever historical, geographical, or racial motivations drive continued expansion into occupied territories, Israel’s persistence may cost the U.S., the Palestinians, and its own people a chance for peace.

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Published with support from Generation Progress.

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