Monday, 27 September 2010

Building on the West Bank – who wins, who loses?

Well, September the 26th – the day on which the 10-month moratorium on construction in the West Bank settlements formally ended – has come and gone, and where do matters stand?

First and foremost, the fragile peace process has not collapsed like a house of cards. Though there is absolutely no guarantee that this may not eventually happen, the fact that PA President Mahmoud Abbas has not stormed out of the negotiations, as his earlier remarks seemed to suggest that he would if the freeze were not formally extended, is in itself a hopeful sign.

And then, on the Israeli side, Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to be frantically signalling a conciliatory message while clearly constrained by political necessities from actually speaking it. ‘I say to President Abbas,” he announced, as the last minutes of the moratorium ticked away, ‘for the sake of both our peoples, let us focus on what is truly important – accelerated, sincere and continuous talks to reach a historic framework agreement within a year.' The unspoken message being: ‘In order to keep my fragile coalition government intact, I have had to let the freeze run its natural course. But take my word for it, I am dedicated making a success of the peace process, and there will be ways and means of restricting building on the West Bank which I could not possibly talk about in present circumstances.’

But perhaps there is an unspoken message on the Palestinian side, as well. Perhaps the more sophisticated Palestinian advisors see the ending of the building freeze in quite a different light from the public posture adopted so far by Abbas. Look at it this way, they might say. Following a peace accord, certain of the larger West Bank settlement blocs, such as Gush Etzion, Pisgat Ze'ev and Modi'in Ilit, will almost certainly remain in Israeli hands. So whether building recommences in those areas or not is of little practical concern to the Palestinian cause, given the final shape of things.

And they might take the argument one stage further. It is generally accepted – they might argue – that, in the event of a final agreement, a range of smaller Israeli settlements will have to be evacuated and handed over to the new sovereign Palestine, just as no less than 21 settlements were evacuated when Israel withdrew from Gaza (to say nothing of four in the West Bank as the same time: Kadim, Ganim, Homesh, and Sa-Nur). Yes, there is going to be an almighty row inside Israel when, or if, that day arrives, just as there was in August 2005. But if it does, we now know that it will only have arrived following a referendum of the entire Israeli population, which will have voted in favour of whatever agreement has emerged from the final negotiations.

Given the indubitably democratic nature of the Israeli state, therefore, it can be taken for granted that a fair number of West Bank settlements would indeed be evacuated and handed over to the Palestinian Authority to be incorporated into the new Palestine. If that is indeed a realistic appraisal – assuming a peace accord acceptable to the Israeli people – then why should the Palestinians object all that vigorously to new building in these settlements? The more new homes the settlers construct, the better the hand-over deal when it comes.

For example, building is expected to begin tomorrow (Tuesday) at a number of sites including Shavei Shomron, Adam, Oranit, Sha'arei Tikva, Yakir, Revava, Kokhav Hashahar, Kedumim and Karmei Tzur. A cornerstone is to be laid for a new neighbourhood in the southern West Bank settlement of Beit Hagai, with construction set to start soon. In addition, after this week's Sukkot holiday, the Yesha Council of settlements and local West Bank councils are expected to begin pressuring Netanyahu to approving new construction. If these – or any of them – are indeed to be handed over as part of a final peace deal, who would be the losers, and who the winners?

Such thinking may be a shade too sophisticated for the Arab man-in-the-street, but it may not be for Mahmoud Abbas or the foreign ministers of the Arab League. Abbas, in an interview published yesterday (Sunday the 26th) in the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, indicated that he would not immediately leave the talks with the expiration of the moratorium, and seemed content to let the Arab League decide the issue, requesting an urgent meeting of the Arab League on October 4. The Arab League, of course, is the body that gave Abbas the green light last month to enter direct talks with Israel, even though the Netanyahu government refused to declare an end to all settlement construction as Abbas had demanded.

Sending the issue to the Arab League, according to one school of thought in Jerusalem, is a graceful way for Abbas to remain in the negotiations despite an end to the moratorium, enabling him to say – perhaps – that this is the will of the Arab League.

A hand-over is not, of course, the only possible scenario following a peace agreement. Just as Israel has always included millions of Arabs among its population, so the final deal might encompass the idea of the new Palestine incorporating Jewish settlers who chose to remain in their homes. For many settlers, it is living in the Biblical land of Israel that is their life’s purpose and fulfilment. The sovereign authority controlling it is not their major concern. A compromise might involve such settlers retaining their Israeli citizenship, or possibly enjoying dual citizenship, while Israel’s Arab population might benefit from a parallel arrangement.

Given a genuine desire for peace, and a modicum of good will among the principals negotiating it, anything is possible.

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