Wednesday, Jul 24, 2024

West Bank Freeze Deal Now Frozen

Three weeks ago, when Prime Minister Netanyahu returned from his latest visit to the US, he promised to quickly bring a generous new US offer in return for a 3-month West Bank freeze extension to a cabinet vote. He was just waiting for the package of benefits that Israel was to receive to be spelled out in a letter from the US government. But as days and then weeks went by, the expected letter never appeared. Last week, Arutz Sheva reported by that no such letter will be forthcoming and that many of the benefits that Secretary of State Clinton had originally promised to Netanyahu, according to the initial reports, have either been withdrawn or were never seriously offered in the first place. Arutz Sheva called it a classic case of “bait and switch,” designed to trap Netanyahu into a freeze deal, from which he would later be unable to extricate himself. The report accuses Clinton of deliberately deceiving Netanyahu by making offers that she knew President Obama would eventually reject.

Arutz Sheva based its report on a source it identified as a “senior diplomat” with inside information of the November 11 meeting between Clinton and Netanyahu in New York City. According to this unnamed source, Clinton claims that she made the original offer to Netanyahu in good faith, but had not yet gotten Obama’s final approval on it, and was not to blame when the president eventually refused to approve it. State Department officials have also claimed that Netanyahu knew that Obama had not yet agreed to the offer, and that it was still subject to his final approval.


A highly placed American Jewish leader whom we spoke to denies that there was any deliberate deception on Clinton’s part. He claims that while the two sides are not yet in full agreement, the US and Israel are still working “cooperatively” to close the remaining gaps and expect to finalize the freeze agreement so that the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations can resume.




However, even if we were to believe that both the US and Israel are negotiating a freeze deal in good faith, it is clear that the US is having serious second thoughts about some of the key benefits Clinton initially promised in return for agreeing to re-instate the ban.


As originally reported, the deal included a US guarantee that it would not ask for another extension of the freeze once the 90-days expired, whether or not there was any progress in the peace talks. Now the US has changed that promise, saying that it only applies if an agreement on the borders of the new PA state is reached before the new freeze expires.


Another point which the US is insisting upon is that the freeze extension be made retroactive to when the first 10-month freeze ended on September 26. The result will be that any new construction on the West Bank which started after the first freeze expired would have to be halted. According to a count by Peace Now, work has now started on more than 1600 new homes in the West Bank. Since the new freeze would be retroactive, it would be due to end on December 26, but the US is now leaving open the option of pressing Netanyahu for another extension if significant progress toward a peace agreement is not achieved by that time.




The most important change politically is that the US is reportedly again insisting that the freeze apply to East Yerushalayim as well as the West Bank. Netanyahu has consistently rejected all previous US demands for a freeze in the city. Accepting that demand would make it very difficult for Netanyahu to get the freeze approved by the cabinet.


Shas has made a special point of demanding that the city be excluded from any new freeze agreement. It has also insisted upon an immediate renewal of new construction there. Previously, Shas had been expected to abstain from a cabinet vote on the freeze, leaving Netanyahu with just enough votes to get the freeze passed. But if the two Shas ministers are forced to vote against the freeze because of the Yerushalayim issue, its passage, even with Netanyahu’s full support, becomes highly unlikely.


While, for the past 18 months, Netanyahu has been adamant in refusing US demands for a formal announcement of a construction freeze in Yerushalayim, he has been pragmatic by delaying the announcements of approvals for new housing projects in Yerushalayim at sensitive times in US-Israeli negotiations. He ordered the most recent such delay shortly after his return from the US and his meeting with Clinton. However, on Monday, he did allow city authorities to announce preliminary approval for a new 130-unit apartment complex in the southern neighborhood of Gilo, which lies beyond the pre-‘67 border. The project had originally been planned as a hotel, and it still requires final approval from the Interior Ministry before construction can begin.


That approval could be seen as a not-so subtle signal to the US that Netanyahu is growing impatient with the delays in finalizing the details of the written agreement on the new freeze.




It also appears that the original sweetener that renewed Netanyahu interested in agreeing to another freeze, an additional 20 F-35I jets for the Israeli air force, was not being offered on the highly attractive financial terms that were originally reported. Instead of being thrown in as a two-for-one deal, for the same price that Israel had agreed to pay for the 20 planes it ordered in August, it appears now that Israel will have to pay separately for the second squadron of planes. The money would come out of the long term $2 billion per year military aid package which the US gives to Israel, but this again raises a real question as to whether the extra 20 planes would be worth the price. Since development of the F-35 started, its basic cost has increased by 50% in inflation-adjusted dollars. It is now $96 million per plane. The original Israeli plan called for Israel to buy 25 planes, but that number was reduced by 5 before the order was placed in August to bring down the cost.


The Israeli air force would prefer to use that aide money to buy the F-22, which is considered to be the best high performance fighter plane in the world, in order to replace its aging F-15s. Australia and Japan are also interested in buying the F-22, which can fly higher and faster than the F-35, but in 2006, Congress banned export sales of the plane. Last year, President Obama ordered the closing of the F-22 production line in 2011, after the last of the 187 aircraft ordered by the US Air Force is delivered.




Israeli and US officials claim that all of these difficulties and misunderstandings can still be worked out, but the process of reaching a final agreement between the US and Israel on renewing the freeze has slowed to a crawl.


Last week, Israeli officials said of the expected letter of agreement that there were still “disagreements on a few of the clauses, and Israel is waiting for clear answers from the Americans.”


On the other hand, sources in the Obama administration said that there is still an internal debate going on over what can be given to Israel in return for a freeze agreement, and what can’t.”


As both sides work to sort out these important details, they have kept a relatively low profile. It is clear that the longer it takes for the US and Israel to reach agreement, the less likely the new round of peace talks will resume with the necessary momentum to overcome the diplomatic inertia and the entrenched forces on both sides which are opposed, for their own reasons, to reaching any negotiated peace deal at this point.


The Israeli right wing continues to blast Netanyahu for refusing to walk away from the freeze proposal, and organizes public protests against any reinstatement of the freeze, regardless of the benefits to Israel. Simultaneously, the Palestinians keep finding new excuses for refusing to come back to the negotiating table. While Abbas and his Fatah party raise new preconditions for the peace talks, the Hamas leadership has renewed its call for armed resistance, and is daring Abbas to return to the negotiating table, which is becoming increasingly doubtful.




One thing the Arabs are good at is the Big Lie technique. They have been using it successfully in recent years in a vicious but effective campaign to de-legitimize Israel in the eyes of the international community.


Last week, Netanyahu roundly condemned the latest Big Lie by the Palestinians. An essay written by PA minister al-Mutawakel Taha, and published on the official Palestinian Authority Ministry of Information Web site last week claims that the Kosel only became a place for Jews to worship 500 years ago, after the expulsion of the Spanish Jewry in 1492. Netanyahu condemns this claim as “reprehensible and scandalous,” and ahs called upon Abbas and his government to disavow the claim. Of course, the PA ignored the demand.


Netanyahu also announced his government’s approval last week of a $23 million five-year project to build a new tourist center in the Kosel Plaza. In a statement issued by his office, Netanyahu said that the Kosel “has been the Jewish people’s most sacred place for almost 2,000 years, since the destruction of the Bayis Sheni,” and that the PA’s attempt to deny that Jewish link “calls into serious question its intentions of reaching a peace agreement, the foundations of which are coexistence and mutual recognition.”




The outrageous Palestinian claim flies in the face of the well-established historical fact that the Kosel was originally part of the outer perimeter wall of the Bayis Sheni. In his essay, Taha writes that “the Al Buraq Wall is the western wall of Al Aksa, which the Zionist occupation falsely claims ownership of and calls the Wailing Wall or Kosel.” Al Buraq was supposedly the name of a winged horse ridden by the founder of Islam. It is an obvious attempt by the Palestinians to come up with a new pretext for denying Jews the right to even visit or daven at the Kosel should peace talks resume.


Palestinian efforts to deny any Jewish connection to Yerushalayim or the Har Habayis are not new. The Arabs refuse to acknowledge that either the Bayis Rishon or the Bayis Sheni ever existed. When Yasser Arafat made that claim to then-President Bill Clinton, he rejected the idea as ridiculous.




Meanwhile, a convention of Abbas’ Fatah Revolutionary Council held in Ramallah over the weekend continued with another variation on the Big Lie. It issued a statement refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, one of the demands which Netanyahu has made a point of insisting upon as part of any final peace agreement. “The council affirms its rejection of the so-called Jewish state or any other formula that could achieve this goal,” the Fatah statement said. “The council also renews its refusal for the establishment of any racist state based on religion in accordance with international law and human rights conventions.” It was not immediately clear whether Fatah’s opposition to a state based on religion also applies to self-declared Islamic states in the region, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.


The council also called upon the Palestinian Authority leadership to work against a new passed by the Knesset on November 22 which would require any withdrawal from Yerushalayim or the Golan Heights to be approved either by a two-thirds super-majority in the Knesset, or a nationwide referendum.




The Fatah council statement also declared opposition to the most recent peace proposal made by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert two years ago that called for Israel and the Palestinians to engage in a 1-to-1 land swap that would allow Israel to permanently maintain control of the largest West Bank settlements. It rejected the concept, declaring that “illegal settler gangs can’t be put on an equal footing with the owners of the lands and rights.”


The Fatah statement also expressed its support for Abbas’ “for adhering to the basic rights, first and foremost the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Also, the council salutes President Abbas for standing up against pressure aimed at resuming the peace talks without achieving the demands of the Palestinians.”


The Fatah council also expressed its opposition to the deal which the US is negotiating with Israel to supply it with military aircraft in return for agreeing to extend the expired construction freeze. The council said that, “such gifts will only make the occupier more stubborn and radical,” and could “harm Palestinian rights and prolong the occupation.”


Abbas told the convention that his demands for a just and comprehensive peace included a complete halt to construction in the West Bank and East Yerushalayim.




That was relatively mild compared to a demand by Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Damascus for a new exercise of armed “resistance” against Israel.


“The resistance is facing huge challenges, especially in the West Bank. Our inalienable rights are threatened with extinction if the situation in the West Bank does not change by launching the resistance against the Israeli occupation and the settlements,” Mashaal declared.


Mashaal also condemned the Palestinian Authority’s attempts to resume peace negotiations with Israel, as well as the PA’s US-trained security forces, which have cracked down on all Hamas activity in the West Bank.


“The Palestinian people will not be bribed. They will not be cowed by Dayton’s forces,” Mashaal said, referring to the US Security Coordinator for Israel and the West Bank, General Keith Dayton, who is in charge of training the 8,000-man PA security force.


“We are not talking about a business deal or making a profit. Our only capital is the land, identity and dignity. When there is such an imbalance of power, negotiations become a process of daily humiliation,” Mashaal declared.




Meanwhile, the low level battle between Arabs and Jews for control of East Yerushalayim continues house by house and street by street. Two weeks ago, Israeli attorney general Yehuda Weinstein issued orders for the demolition of 88 Arab homes built in the Gan Hemelech (Silwan) area of East Yerushalayim over the past 30 years without permits from the city, in order to make room for a new tourist center, park and shopping area. The area will be part of a major new development planned by Yerushalayim Mayor Nir Barkat. It would also provide new housing nearby for the Arabs displaced from the demolished homes.


At the same time, Barkat has sought to delay the government-ordered demolition of a seven-story Jewish house called Beit Yehonatan built by a pro-settler group in the same area without government permits.


The garden (Gan) has existed since the days of Bayis Rishon. The illegal Arab homes to be demolished were all built there after 1977, when the area was rezoned by the city as open space.


Last week, Jews finally took possession and moved into another Jewish-owned home formerly occupied by Arabs, and located in the Jabal Mukaber section, near the Old City. However, they needed help from the police after an Israeli court ordered the Arab squatters who had been occupying the place to leave.


Pro-Arab media activists had tried to portray the Kuraeen family as martyrs being wrongfully evicted by Israel from their home, but the court found that the Arab family’s claim to own the building was bogus. It had been solely owned by a deceased relative of the Arab family, but he had sold it several years ago for $450,000 to a Jewish-owned company called Lowell Investments.


The Arab family finally left, allowing Jewish residents to join several other Jewish families who were already living in other parts of the same building.




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