Some say the row over extending the settlement building freeze in the territories distracts the public from negotiations over the fate of the West Bank. Some say it's a shame to disturb the political system over such a negligible matter as this, given the challenges of reaching a final-status agreement through the just-born talks.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, however, views the settlement issue as anything but marginal. Lieberman told British Foreign Secretary William Hague by phone this week that the freeze is nothing more than a Palestinian excuse to torpedo direct talks. "Israel's government offered extensive goodwill gestures over the last year, and it is now the Palestinians' turn," Lieberman said in explaining why the freeze wouldn't be extended.
The demand to suspend settlement building is no excuse - it's as legitimate a position as the Palestinians can have. Why should they relinquish a condition that has the support of the entire world, with the sole exception of Israel? Nor is freezing construction an Israeli "gesture" - in its May 2003 decision to adopt the Middle East road map Israel committed itself to freezing all settlement activity (including natural growth ) and dismantling outposts established since March 2001. The document states that the settlement issue would be addressed only during final-status negotiations, with the exception of illegal settlements and outposts, which would be removed. Nonetheless, settlement construction has continued, and outposts have both proliferated and expanded.
In November 2003 the road map was passed with UN approval, obligating Israel to freeze construction entirely and raze outposts. All 15 members of the Security Council, including the United States (during the administration of George W. Bush, not Barack Obama ), voted in favor of Resolution 1515. A few days later, while visiting Britain, Bush called on Israel to freeze settlement building, evacuate unauthorized outposts and end the daily humiliation of the Palestinians. Settlement construction continued, and the outposts increased and expanded.
In November 2007 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas acceded to Bush's request to attend the Annapolis Conference, which sought to start negotiations toward a final-status agreement. Talks went on until the fall of 2008, and meanwhile, building in the settlements continued and outposts flourished.
On November 26 of last year, following intense pressure from Washington (not as a gesture to the Palestinians, or out of deference to the government's obligations under UN resolutions ), Israel issued a 10-month freeze order. On January 26, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai wrote to Meretz chairman Haim Oron listing the 29 settlements in which construction violations were found.
One of them was Nokdim, a settlement east of the Green Line and the home of the only foreign minister in the world who goes to bed every night and rises every morning outside his country's sovereign territory.
If Lieberman's stance on the freeze reflects that of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister's wife Sara may just as well pack away the Palestinian flag recently hoisted at their home. Abbas will not cross the threshold of the Prime Minister's Residence once more without receiving a pledge that Israel will extend the freeze. If the foreign minister's view is representative of those of the majority of ministers seated around Netanyahu's table, cabinet members from the Labor Party will have to leave their chairs. Unless, that is, they are willing to remove themselves and their party from political relevancy.
If, however, Netanyahu shows determination not only to freeze settlements temporarily, but to evacuate most of them permanently, the settlement row could prove to be a golden opportunity to get rid of Lieberman. There is no excuse for Netanyahu to keep the man and his party on board. Instead, he should invite Tzipi Livni to serve as foreign minister. Livni won't allow herself and her Kadima party to undermine talks toward a conclusive agreement, since such a deal would help pave her way into office as prime minister.
Livni's appointment would be the most valuable possible "gesture" to the humiliated Israeli peace camp, and Israel's tenuous position on the world stage.
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