If I were Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas I would be deeply insulted by the negotiations U.S. President Barack Obama is conducting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over building permits in the settlements. Who authorized the Americans - this administration or the previous one - to do business with Palestinian land?
If I were Netanyahu I would be very worried by Israel's image in the Arab world as a client of the United States in the "natural growth" affair. How is it possible that the proud Jewish government is begging the non-Jews ("Rome" in Netanyahu's discourse, according to senior adviser Uzi Arad), to allow it to build a kindergarten in Ma'aleh Adumim?
If I were Obama I would tell Netanyahu that if the settlers' children are so close to the prime minister's heart, let him ask the Palestinian Authority to take their crowded living conditions into consideration. After all, even according to Israel's official position, Ma'aleh Adumim does not belong to us but is considered disputed territory - a dispute with the Palestinians, not the Americans. The prime minister does not miss an opportunity to decry any attempt to solve a territorial dispute unilaterally, such as the Gaza disengagement, though that move was made with the blessing of a very friendly American president.
A unilateral worldview is inherent in the demand to expand construction in areas defined as "settlement blocs." This political and geographic term is nothing more than an Israeli invention that has never received Palestinian approval or international legitimization. As far as the world is concerned, even the Western Wall and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem are settlements in every sense.
George W. Bush's recognition of the demographic reality in the territories since 1967 was clearly conditioned on an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians on permanent borders. Moreover, Israel itself has not defined the boundaries of the "blocs" it wants to keep in a permanent agreement. If Netanyahu asks nicely, Abbas may let him complete the construction of a few hundred buildings in the so-called settlement blocs. After all, the Palestinians turned a blind eye to 40 percent growth in housing starts in the territories since the Annapolis summit.
However, that was while prime minister Ehud Olmert was conducting an intensive dialogue with Abbas on all final-status issues: borders, Jerusalem and refugees. When an Israeli leader was offering Abbas a very generous withdrawal, territory exchanges on boths sides of the West Bank border (without including the Gaza Strip in the deal), and a fair arrangement on East Jerusalem, it was not worth it for him to make waves over a few settlers.
PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat confirmed in a lecture in Amman about two weeks ago that the gap between Abbas and Olmert was on the issue of territorial contiguity stemming from the annexation of the "Ariel bloc," Givat Ze'ev and area E-1. Erekat was convinced that if the Olmert government had remained in office, the agreement would have been within reach. If Netanyahu denies his predecessor's positions on issues of principle, why should Obama (not to mention Abbas) honor oral understandings that did or did not exist with the previous U.S. administration on negligible issues such as natural growth?
Netanyahu has just pledged to renew direct negotiations with the Palestinians based on the two-state solution. That is the outline for discussions on all points of dispute including the request to expand construction to account for natural population growth, the demand to demilitarize the West Bank and the expectation that the Palestinians will recognize Israel as a Jewish state. In these discussions, issues such as roadblocks, the route of the security fence and prisoners can also be hammered out.
Instead of wasting presidential prestige and valuable time pathetically bargaining with Netanyahu over another kindergarten, Obama should give him the phone number of the Muqata government headquarters and demand that Abbas keep a line free. If in a reasonable period of time, say two or three months, the two leaders cannot reach understandings on all core issues, the time will come for the president to put the Obama plan on the table.
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