Peace Talks Still Worthwhile

The 10-month Israeli settlement freeze expired on Sunday Sept. 26th, just one month into the current Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Since then, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has received outside pressure from the Palestinian Authority as well as from the Obama administration, the UN and the EU to renew the “freeze”. The problem with calling it a “freeze” is that nothing was actually frozen.

Prior to this, settlement building was up to 2,965 homes. When it began, the number of settlements went down to 2,565, which was a decrease of only 16 percent. Now that the partial freeze has expired, just a little over 350 buildings have been constructed in parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in what is assumed to become the capital of the future Palestinian state.

In response to Netanyahu’s clear refusal to extend the settlement freeze, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to walk away from the current direct talks. Before making any drastic moves, he decided to wait until after discussing the matter in a meeting with the Arab League that took place in Libya on Oct. 8. There, the Arab League announced their abiding support for Abbas to continue his involvement in the peace talks. In addition, they decided to give the U.S. a one-month grace period in order to convince the Israeli government to completely halt settlement construction in the Palestinian territories.

Before being given this one-month grace period, the Obama administration sent an offer to the Israeli government with security guarantees and military hardware in exchange for a two-month extension of the settlement freeze. The Israeli prime minister responded that he would not agree to extend the freeze for more than one month. Netanyahu argued that the future of the settlements is a matter to be discussed in the coming year, not a precondition for talks.

The PA responded that if Netanyahu is not willing to renew the settlement moratorium, he clearly does not want peace. If the Obama administration does not succeed in pressuring the Israeli government to renew the settlement freeze, Abbas may decide to leave the peace talks. It is then very likely that the PA will fall apart, giving Israel ample opportunity to build more settlements that make it virtually impossible to end with anything that will look like a viable Palestinian state. Many from both sides of the political spectrum assume that the current peace talks will end in a two-state solution, divided along the 1967 borders with the inclusion of land swaps. Therefore, if settlements continue to be built on Palestinian territory, there will be little left for a future Palestinian state.

Despite what many may believe, Netanyahu may be as he has expressed time and time again, a strong advocate for peace. The issue is not whether Netanyahu wants peace, but whether it is something he feels is worth sacrificing for. By renewing the settlement freeze, he risks losing Likud, a good portion of his right-wing coalition government. However, Kadima, the centrist labor party within the Israeli government, is 100 percent willing to support Netanyahu in whatever move he makes, just as long as he ensures that the peace talks will continue. If the peace talks do not, however, Kadima has threatened to leave the government. One reason why Netanyahu may be afraid to renew the settlement freeze is that, in losing Likud, Kadima will become the majority in the Israeli government. And with Kadima in the majority, he believes that he will lose his ministry to Tzipi Livni, the current head of the labor party. Nonetheless, Livni has assured the public that as long as Netanyahu continues the peace talks, she will have no interest in taking the position of prime minister. If Netanyahu decides to extend the freeze and ends up losing Likud, some of the ministers will have to give up their seats and he will most likely need to play around with the structure of his coalition. However, the most that is likely to happen will be the replacement of Lieberman with Livni as the new Israeli foreign minister. Netanyahu should not be too concerned since it would be very unlikely for Israel to be led by a fresh prime minister without having new elections.

As illustrated earlier, it is in the interests of everyone involved to remain in the peace talks. Therefore, it is necessary now more than ever to see some strong and honest commitment coming from both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. It would be ideal for the Obama administration to push for the 1967 borders as a semi-precondition to the peace talks, but it is unlikely that Obama will be so pro-active, especially at such a crucial period in his administration. Mid-term elections are approaching, so we will probably not see him making bold moves any time soon since he also risks losing governmental support. But then again, it would be detrimental for the administration if the Palestinians leave the negotiating table. This is why the Arab League’s one-month grace period is the best thing that could have happened to the U.S. and Israeli government. President Obama will not have to worry about saving the peace talks in order to maintain support among his constituents because it will not be made public as to whether he has succeeded in the peace talks until after the Nov. 2 elections. It is also good for Netanyahu in that he will have ample time to think things through and work with his right-wing coalition in order to convince them into renewing the settlement freeze.

Finally, it raises the question as to whether one month is enough time for the Obama administration to get the Israeli government to truly commit to completely ending settlement construction. This is very unlikely but they do not seem to have any other choice. One may ask whether these peace talks are worth having if commitment does not come from both sides.

It is important to remember that in a 2003 road map for peace, the Israeli government agreed to end settlement expansion. According to the road map for the negotiations, accepted by Israel and endorsed by the Security Council in December 2003, Israel is required to freeze all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements), prior to the start of negotiations. It is also required to maintain the freeze throughout the negotiations. Unfortunately, Israel has failed to live up to its commitment. Nevertheless, I still believe that these peace talks are definitely worth having. All there is left for us to do is hope for peace and trust that our leaders are doing the same.

Nesma Tawil is a first-year Biomedical Engineering major. She can be reached at ntawil@uci.edu.