One encouraging development was US criticism of the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states for circulating a draft resolution to the members of the Security Council condemning Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Yerushalayim. An unnamed US official told an Israeli reporter that, “final status issues can only be resolved through negotiations between the parties, not by recourse to the UN Security Council. We, therefore, consistently oppose any attempt to take final status issues to the council as such efforts do not move us closer to our goal of two states living side by side in peace and security.”
The other veto bearing members of the Security Council, Russia, China, Britain and France, reportedly view the Palestinian draft resolution, which began to be circulated on December 20, favorably, because its language is less extreme than its anti-Israel resolutions in the past. It cites the call in the 2003 roadmap plan for an Israeli construction freeze, and also condemns Israel for actions to change the demographic status of the West Bank and East Yerushalayim.
US INTENTIONS STILL UNCLEAR
While the US has criticized the Palestinian resolution, it is not yet clear whether it is prepared to formally veto the resolution if it comes up for a Security Council vote. Since the 1980s, the US has publicly opposed settlement construction as “an obstacle to peace,” but it has never opposed settlement construction as illegal under international law, as Israel’s opponents claim.
The Israeli position is that the status of the West Bank and East Yerushalayim have never been clearly established under the rules of international law. The armistice which ended Israel’s 1948 War of Liberation was just a cease-fire in place. It never had the status of a peace agreement, so the de facto borders established at that time were never officially recognized as such under international law. While Israel eventually signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan establishing the official status of those borders, Israel contends that the West Bank and East Yerushalayim remain “disputed territories” under international law, and as such, Israel has as much right to build there as the Arabs. However, the US has never formally accepted that position, and as a result, to a very real extent, the legal status of those areas is very much “disputed.”
Meanwhile, Obama’s Special Envoy George Mitchell said in a broadcast interview that the US intends to continue its efforts to revive the peace process, because abandoning the process could lead to another outbreak of violence. “I do think that we have to stay involved because our interest is at stake, and a principal point is that an eruption of violence or some other negative act could occur at any time with unforeseeable consequences,” Mitchell said.
WORRIES ABOUT GREAT BRITAIN
Israel is also concerned about the possibility that Great Britain will upgrade its Palestinian delegation to the status of a full-fledged diplomatic mission. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office recently confirmed reports that it is seriously considering such a move.
Great Britain would not be the first European country to do that. France, Spain, Portugal and most recently Norway have already granted their Palestinian delegations full diplomatic status. Early in 2010, the US also upgraded the PLO’s diplomatic status in Washington to “delegation general.” But a British move of this a nature at this time, would be seen as another in a series of recent diplomatic setbacks for Israel, which insists that the Palestinians must be denied full international recognition until they sign a formal peace agreement with Israel.
In recent months, the Palestinians have won official recognition from the South American countries of Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia. Some Israeli diplomats fear that a British upgrade to the diplomatic status of Palestinians stationed there could be a prelude to future British recognition of a unilateral Palestinian statehood declaration, which the Arabs have long threatened to do.
Israel was caught by surprise by the British Foreign Office statement that a Palestinian diplomatic upgrade was a serious possibility, since Britain’s Conservative government is much more pro-Israel than the Labor government it replaced. Just a few weeks ago, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told an Israeli newspaper that Great Britain prefers to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolved through direct negotiations.
NETANYAHU REFUSES TO PRESENT HIS MAP
Netanyahu also responded last week to media reports of complaints from US officials that he has remained unwilling to present a map showing the lines where the final borders between Israel and the future Palestinian state should be drawn.
In recent weeks, Israeli officials have held meetings with several high level representatives of the Obama administration. Last week, Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzchak Molcho met with Dan Shapiro, the Middle East advisor to the White House National Security Council, and with David Hale, an adviser to George Mitchell. Before that, veteran US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross was in Israel to assess Netanyahu’s position.
Netanyahu’s response is that Israel’s new border map can’t be drawn before first resolving other key issues. These include the long term security arrangements in the peace agreement, such as whether an Israeli army force would be permitted to remain stationed along the Jordan River to repel invaders and stop arms smuggling from Jordan if that territory is ceded to a Palestinian state. The final borders will also depend on whether or not the future Palestinian state will be de-militarized, and if the Palestinians are willing to formally accept Israel as the legitimate nation-state of the Jewish people, thereby formally ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
INTERNATIONAL FORCES CAN’T DO THE JOB
In discussions with the American envoy, Netanyahu and his representatives also said that Israel would not be satisfied with an international force stationed along the Jordan River, because experience in other countries like Afghanistan shows that such forces cannot be depended upon to stay to do the job if they are likely to come under hostile fire, which would be the case on the Jordan border. According to a recent story published in Newsweek, Netanyahu also wants Israeli troops stationed on the Palestinian side of the future Israeli border with the West Bank, in order to protect Israel’s narrow central waist, where most of its population lives.
Netanyahu also said that the revelations of the WikiLeaks cables prove that it was not necessary for progress to be made on the Israeli-Palestinian track in order to get the Arabs to oppose the spread of Iranian influence in the region. He was referring to the private comments of various Arab leaders quoted in the cables expressing their deep concern over the threat to the region posed by the Iranian. Based on those statements, Netanyahu called the argument that Israel must bow to Palestinian demands in order to mobilize support against the more urgent Iranian threat a politically correct non-starter.
Meanwhile, PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas ruled out the possibility that Israeli soldiers would be stationed anywhere inside the borders of the future Palestinian state.
“We are prepared to move toward peace based on international resolutions, the Road Map and 1967 borders, but when a Palestinian state is established it will be empty of any Israeli presence. If a Palestinian state is established with Jerusalem as its capital, we will object to the presence of even one Israeli in its territory. This is our position,” Abbas declared.
Abbas said that he has submitted a document to the US detailing Palestinian terms for a comprehensive peace agreement, but has yet to receive Israel’s response.
WEST BANK CONSTRUCTION IN HIGH GEAR
Abbas also complained again about Israeli construction in the West Bank, but his steadfast refusal to negotiate with Israel directly, guarantees that the construction will continue at its current accelerated pace. In the three months since the September 26 expiration of the voluntary 10-month freeze, new Jewish construction has exploded throughout the West Bank, including relatively isolated settlements which Israel may not retain following a peace agreement.
Nevertheless, new construction has proceeded at the fastest pace seen over the past decade. On this question, both pro-settlement and anti-settlement activists agree. Their main point of difference is over whether or not this explosion in West Bank construction is very good or very bad.
Pro-peace process activist worry that more Jews living deep inside the West Bank will make any agreement on how to separate the Arab and Jewish populations in the West Bank more difficult and expensive to implement.
Hagit Ofran, an anti-settlement monitor for Peace Now, called this, “the most active period in many years.” She believes that there are 2,000 housing units currently under construction and 13,000 more that currently have all the permits they need to start construction at any time.
Pro-settlement leaders do not dispute these figures. In fact, they are proud of them.
“The freeze is over, and we are filling in the gap of need that was postponed,” David Ha’Ivri, a spokesman for a settlement council in the northern West Bank told the New York Times. “The Peace Now numbers are reliable. Their count seems to be correct. The only difference is that they see it as negative, and we see it as positive.”
BUILDING BOOM REACHES NEW AREAS
Naftali Bennett, the executive director of the Yesha settler’s council, said that he would like to see government tenders for an additional 4,000 housing units, in the larger West Bank settlements.
The current construction boom in the West Bank, defies the trend in recent years, in which most of the activity has been in the larger settlements close to Green Line that are widely expected to be retained by Israel in any peace deal with the Palestinians. These include cities like settlements of Maale Adumim, Beitar Illit and Kiryat Sefer, as well as the cluster of smaller settelements in the Gush Etzion block.
Building in those areas generally requires government tenders and long lead time. The most intense areas of current growth, which started up since the freeze ended in September, involve smaller, private construction projects mostly in the smaller and more remote settlements, like Tapuach, Talmon, Ofra, Eli and Shiloh. Those West Bank communities are understandably in a hurry to build themselves up, in order to increase their chances for long term survival.
In response to Palestinian demands that settlement growth be stopped, the Israeli response is that if they really want that, the best thing they could do is return to direct negotiations as soon as possible so that their territory can be defined. In that regard, staying away from negotiations is self-defeating for the Palestinians.
According to State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, “consistent with our policy, we continue to raise concerns about settlement activity with the Israeli government,” However, since the US withdrew the proposed freeze extension agreement, there have been no further public attempts by the US to publicly pressure Israel into halting construction.
ISRAEL CLAIMS NOTHING WILL BE CHANGED
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said that since the original moratorium ended in September, the government has respected a prior agreement to approve building only in existing settlements and not to expropriate more land for expansion. The construction going on now, Regev said, “will not in any way change the final map of peace.”
New Jewish construction projects are also moving forward in East Yerushalayim, where the government has never accepted any limitation on build more apartments to relieve a severe Jewish housing shortage.
A spokesman for Yerushalayim mayor, Nir Barkat denied that the city is building specifically for either Jews or Palestinians, because that would be discriminatory. “Are they saying we should encourage religious segregation in case there is a Palestinian state?” the spokesman asked. “We see it as our job to take care of all residents of Yerushalayim, East and West, and dividing the building by race is both illegal and immoral.”
GAZA BORDER HEATING UP
Meanwhile, the security situation on Israel’s southern border with Gaza, which has been quiet since the army’s Operation Cast Lead invasion two years ago, is heating up again.
Terrorists in Gaza have roughly doubled the frequency of missile and mortar attacks on surrounding Jewish communities. Most of those missiles fall harmlessly, but one longer range rocket which landed adjacent to a kindergarten near Ashkelon last week lightly wounded a teenage girl. This prompted a stronger Israeli military response, including stepped up bombing of the network of smuggling tunnels on the border between Gaza and Egypt, as well as the first Israeli attack on a Hamas outpost in two years.
Similarly, the army has had to open fire more frequently on terrorists approaching the Gaza side of the security fence intent on planting bombs with the goal of injuring or kidnaping Israeli soldiers who patrol the road on their side of the fence.
This has led to a steady of escalation of the fighting along the Gaza border, accompanied by threats of retaliation from both sides, and growing fears that Israel has lost its ability to deter further Hamas attacks. Hamas’ enhanced military capabilities were demonstrated two weeks ago, when the terrorists damaged an Israeli tank with an Iranian-produced Korent laser-guided anti-tank missile that had been smuggled into Gaza. Hamas is also taking a more active role in the recent rocket attacks, and doing less to keep other terrorist groups in Gaza from staging their own attacks, even though, publicly, Hamas leaders claim to be maintaining a cease-fire.
WHAT DOES HAMAS WANT?
Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai (Labor) said last week that Hamas has “turned Gaza into an abscess — a problematic boil. . . Instead of taking care of its own people, Hamas is still trying to conquer Yerushalayim.”
Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor warned in an interview that continued escalation of the rocket fire could prompt another Israel invasion of Gaza if Hamas lets it go too far.
Some Israel commentators believe that Hamas doesn’t really want that either. Instead, its leaders may be trying to see just how far they can push the Israelis, in establishing new rules that are more to their liking for the military “games” that both sides play along the Gaza border.
Hamas may also be deliberately heating up the fighting along the Gaza border in order to capitalize on the breakdown in the effort to revive peace talks, or to relieve frustration because of a variety of internal problems. It may be a response to opposition from Gaza residents who are tired of their economic hardships, and its imposition of harsh Islamic rules and totalitarian controls over dissent.
Some say that Hamas is frustrated because it is running out of cash to pay the monthly expenses of running Gaza. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, admitted last week that his government is having trouble coming up with the $25 million needed every month to fund its ministries and pay its 34,000 employees, most of whom are members of its armed forces.
A DANGEROUS SITUATION
Whatever the reason for the upsurge in violence, the situation is dangerous. Hamas has had two years to re-arm, re-train, and prepare for another bloody confrontation with the Israeli army. Nobody in Israel is eager for such a confrontation. In fact, Israel has recently loosened its import and export embargo on Gaza in order to respond to international criticism over the miserable state of Gaza’s residents, and its collapsed economy.
The army claims that it is prepared for whatever Hamas may try along the Gaza border. However, Israel would clearly prefer to restore the relative calm which has existed along that border for the past two years.
REPAIRING ISRAEL’S IMAGE
For the time being, Israel would be content to concentrate on restoring its tarnished credibility in the world community that has been damaged in recent years by widespread misperceptions over what happened during the war in Gaza two years ago, and its motivations in imposing the embargo on Gaza.
Those problems were highlighted last week when the Turkish government, which turned against Israel after the Gaza invasion, engaged in another war of words with Israel, including a nasty spat over which country had done the most for the other in recent years.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was angered by another Turkish demand for an apology from Israel over the incident aboard the Mavi Marmara cruise ship which was trying to run the Gaza blockade on May 31 of this year. When Israeli commandos boarded the ship, they were attacked by armed Turkish terrorists, forcing the commandoes to respond with deadly force, killing nine of the terrorists.
After Israel returned the ship to Turkey last week, Lieberman called the renewed Turkish demand for an apology, “beyond chutzpa.”
Lieberman seemed especially upset by remarks by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that it would have taken Israel days to send the kind of help to Turkey that Ankara sent during the recent Carmel forest fire. Lieberman recalled that in 1999, when a major earthquake hit Turkey, Israel immediately dispatched a 240-person rescue team that spend weeks extracting people from the debris and giving them medical attention.
SEATTLE BUS AD WAR
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, in Seattle, Washington, a public dispute broke out over a bus ad that protested Israeli actions in Gaza prompted a King County Executive Dow Constantine to order the county’s transit system not to accept any more noncommercial advertising.
A group called Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign paid $2,760 to place the ad on 12 Seattle public buses that showed children and a demolished building with the caption, “Israeli War Crimes – Your tax dollars at work.”
Its appearance triggered hundreds of angry e-mails and other messages objecting to the ad, and offers by two organizations to buy their own bus ads to counter the original ad message.
County Executive Constantine decided that the revenue being generated by the bus ads was not worth the controversy, and issued a statement saying that the “widespread and often vitriolic international debate” it spawned raised serious security concerns.
“Given the dramatic escalation of debate in the past few days over these proposed ads, and the submission of inflammatory response ads, there is now an unacceptable risk of harm to or disruption of service to our customers should these ads run,” Constantine said.
In response, a spokesman for the group which sponsored the anti-Israel ad complained that by ordering that the ad be taken down, Constantine had given in to “bullying and intimidation” and a “campaign of threats and disruption.”
County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, said that the council will attempt to permanently bar such provocative ads while not infringing on free speech rights. He said people have the right to voice their opinions, “but I don’t think the public should have to subsidize public transportation to advertise messages of hate.”