If Abbas were to take the settlement freeze seriously
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If Abbas were to take the settlement freeze seriously

On May 28th the long awaited meeting between Obama and Mahmoud Abbas took place. While the media hailed the profound understanding between the two, a closer look reveals that the meeting is yet another lost opportunity for Palestinians to assert their rights.

Israel had set the stage of the meeting. Netanyahu’s visit ten days ago clarified the Israeli policies regarding Palestine – rejection of a two state solution and the reduction of the Palestinian struggle for justice to a question of poverty for which humanitarian and economic alleviation is sought. Shortly after, news about an agreement between Labour and Likud on the evacuation of the 22 outposts was ‘leaked’ to divert attention from these two strategic goals and to respond to the White House demand to ‘freeze’ settlements with nothing less but ‘evacuations’. Through a slight of hand that places the ‘outposts’ as the subject of the discourse, the international community is made to believe they are the main obstacles to peace, not the expansion of the main settlement blocs, especially in and around Jerusalem.

The perception of illegality is effectively shifted from the settlements to the outposts. According to Israeli law and the government media campaign, only outposts are ‘illegal’. The fact that international law considers all Israeli settlements war crimes is conveniently cut from the discourse. This serves to normalize ‘natural’ expansion to the international community, which in practice serves as cover for the takeover of new hilltops.

This is compounded by all those among the Israelis, Palestinians and the international community who talk about a ‘land swap’. Not only is this a racist concept that assumes the ethnic purity of states, but it also accepts the permanence of the settlements, making it all the more difficult to oppose their ‘natural’ expansion.

Neither the ‘natural growth’ nor the outposts are the subversive work of fanatic settlers against the will of Israeli leaders. On the contrary, these settlements are provided by the government with water, electricity, streets and other services. Governments do not provide support and incentives to illegal actions. And if we entertain the idea that the Israeli state really was an exception, considering itself obliged to offer services and support to its citizens even if contrary to government policies, then one wonders why the 100,000 Palestinians living in 40 unrecognized villages in the Naqab (Negev) are cut off from basic services and continuously threatened with home demolitions.

The over 100 outposts Israel has built since 2001 are there to serve as the first line of defense in the political fight around settlements, and their eviction is to be exchanged for the acceptance of the main settlement blocs. The outcome of such a solution on the ground would change nothing: the West Bank and Gaza would be as fragmented and divided into ghettos and enclaves, as unviable a state as it is now.

Knowing this, how has Mahmoud Abbas prepared himself for what some officials called a historical meeting with Obama? Frankly, none of the necessary preparations have been made that would have provided him strong cards to play.

The PNA should have taken a serious and honest position with its people and made the continuation of relations with Israel conditional on an immediate and effective settlement freeze and the end of the construction of the Apartheid Wall, both of which have effectively buried the two-state solution. Otherwise, all the agreements that have been signed in the last two decades should be questioned and reviewed.

The Palestinian foreign office and diplomatic missions should have carried out an intensive campaign to explain this position internationally and to underline their seriousness. Yet, there was not even an attempt of a media campaign. Not one Palestinian top official has written an article or given interviews in the international press.

After Netanyahu’s public refusal of the two-state solution, the PNA should have taken immediate action, calling upon the Security Council and the Arab League to discuss appropriate reaction. They should have immediately frozen all contacts and coordination with Israel to show their determination.

This move would have proven to the world that the PNA still carries initiative and would have helped them to move beyond the flawed policy of reliance on western intervention to stop Israel’s crimes against our people. The real problem is that the PNA is not willing to recognize its real potential for power – the Palestinian people – as a partner.

This position is the central cause of the growing alienation between the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people they ostensibly represent, marked by the complete absence of Palestinian civil society from all decision making and political strategizing. The national forces do not lead the Palestinian street anymore and grassroots movements are looked at with suspicion by the PNA. The people are not allowed any political participation and are never asked before this leadership adopts a position. There is a lack of transparency regarding political developments, plans and positions concerning the key political questions. In the case of Mahmoud Abbas’ meeting with the White House, did the Palestinian street know in advance his and the PNA’s position? Were they asked what should be done if he were to return empty-handed?

The answer to both these questions is no. The PNA, if it were to take seriously the American call for a settlement freeze, would cut ties and coordination in all fields with Israel until the latter accepted the conditions. Instead, the PNA seems to be waiting for yet another American speech, this time in Cairo. Yet more waiting could prove dangerous; Obama has not established timetable for the settlement freeze, and a successful one could easily take several years and necessitate a change in the Israeli government. This is ample time for the current government to set up additional outposts and complete the Wall. Continued inaction only serves Israeli interests, further entrenching the larger settlement blocs in the West Bank.