The Israeli-Palestinian migraine

What will come of the most recent talks between Palestine and Israel with the ban on settlements lifted?

by Ian J Byrne

WeâÄôve got two dates to the ball, but neither one wants to dance.

On Saturday, the Palestinian leadership said that if Israeli settlement building wasnâÄôt halted, then the most recent peace talks, begun just under a month ago, should be suspended.

On Sept. 26, a 10-month moratorium expired that had banned Israeli settlers from building inside the West Bank. Following the war in 1967, Israel has occupied land in the West Bank and it has allowed some 500,000 Israelis to build and move into 100 settlements within its borders.  The settlements are illegal under international law, and Palestinians view them as encroaching on land they will use to build their state some day. Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said last week, âÄúIsrael must choose between settlements and peace.âÄù

While IâÄôm in the company of all others who think peace in the Middle East is a few millennia overdue, the fact of the matter is, from a national interest standpoint, Israel does not have any pressing reasons to reach a peace deal.

âÄúLife is good in Israel,âÄù Nir Sagie told me. Sagie, 30, is an Israeli linguist who lives in Tel Aviv, IsraelâÄôs second largest city and financial capital. âÄúIt affects the way people here see the situation, the conflict, the process, whatever you want to call it. In most places, you donâÄôt feel any war situation, so many people donâÄôt care,âÄù he said.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of two Palestinians. One of them, my friend Moha
Hilal, a 24-year-old Palestinian student from West Bank who studies in Malaysia, described the situation, saying, âÄúThe Palestinians need peace but donâÄôt want it. The Israelis want peace but donâÄôt need it.âÄù

I applaud President Barack Obama for being able to bypass the usual rhetoric of numerous pre-indirect talks and getting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas to agree to direct talks for the first time in20 months.

The talks did seem to be too little too late though, considering they began four weeks before the expiration of the settlement freeze. For a conflict that has lasted over the past 40 years, how much did the Obama administration think would be accomplished in those four weeks?

In light of the settlement freeze expiring and the Palestinians threatening to walk out, the Obama administration offered a package of compromises to the Israelis in return for a two-month extension of the settlement-building moratorium. The Israelis rejected this.

Two months, six months or five years: No settlement freeze will be effective unless it is forever.

âÄúThe deal has been quite clear over the last 20 years or so,âÄù Sagie told me. âÄúIn order for peace to happen, Israel has to evacuate the settlements in the West Bank. No deal will be achieved if we arenâÄôt willing to evacuate settlements, and our current government is not willing to do that.âÄù

Sagie explained there are two justifications for Israeli settlements to exist in the West Bank. One, for security reasons: If the settlements are evacuated, the Palestinians will be able to attack Israel more easily. The security justifications are more believable than the religious and ideological reasons, Sagie said. The religious and ideological reasons are that the Israelis have been on those lands for 2,000 years and they canâÄôt leave.
When I asked Sagie if the Palestinians would be able to attack Israel more easily if the settlements are abandoned, he replied, âÄúYou canâÄôt know that, but people here donâÄôt trust the Palestinians.âÄù

The Palestinians wonâÄôt participate in peace talks if there is a continuation of Israeli settlement construction. The Israelis will not halt settlement building on security grounds. What the hell is anyone supposed to do?

Israel has legitimate reasons to be concerned about security considering theyâÄôve suffered rocket attacks and fought wars with both Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon over the past decade. But can it address security concerns without relying on force?

The conflict is a never-ending cycle. The Palestinians suffer and attack Israel. Israel then retaliates and the Palestinians suffer more. Support for Hamas and Hezbollah swell, and then they attack again. The status quo is not acceptable for the United States, Israel, the West Bank or Gaza.

I am interested in decreasing the threat Israel faces from rocket attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah. I am interested in seeing that Palestinians are able to live free of an occupation and in their own state. I am interested in seeing less hatred for the United States due to our support for Israel. We need to redefine expectations that reflect the realities on the ground. We cannot continue on like this forever.

Continuing to build settlements in the West Bank is madness. It will only help to fuel support for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which will then attack. Israel will then justify the existence of settlements even more. Settlement building will only prove to be a detriment to Israel in the long run.
 âÄúPeople feel like the Jewish state is temporary, like weâÄôre always walking on eggshells,âÄù Sagie said. âÄúPeople feel that we have to fight to keep it.âÄù
What can be done to convince them otherwise?