Abbas/Netanyahu/Obama settlements cartoon - Amos Biederman - Sept. 26, 2010
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AP
Benjamin Netanyahu speaking during the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office, July 25, 2010. Photo by AP

There is no greater folly than expanding the settlements at the height of peace talks aimed at establishing a Palestinian state. The settlements were built to prevent the division of the land, by changing the demographic balance in the West Bank. They were intended to create facts that would thwart an Israeli withdrawal from the territories where an independent Palestinian state would arise. Expanding the settlements undermines any diplomatic agreement, damages Israel's international standing and increases the occupier's pressure on West Bank Palestinians, whose lands are being stolen and whose day-to-day lives are bound by the limitations of checkpoints and roads built for the settlers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is insisting on renewing construction in the settlements at the end of the 10-month freeze while negotiating with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on a "two-state solution." This raises major questions regarding his intentions.

If Netanyahu really means to divide the land, he must stop settlement construction at least until the future border is agreed on, which would make clear where Israel can build and what areas will be evacuated.

Abbas is threatening that the talks will halt if construction restarts, and Netanyahu has accused him of being unfair: the Palestinians negotiated for 17 years while previous governments doubled settlements, and he, Netanyahu, is now the one being asked to maintain a moratorium on construction. This argument suits a debate club, not statesmen. Expansion of the settlements was and still is one of the main factors in the failure of the talks, exacerbation of the conflict and the growing belief that a solution is impossible.

The 10-month freeze was necessary to create a foundation for the talks.

In his speech at the Washington summit, Netanyahu pledged that he is seeking to strike an agreement with Abbas, not just to argue with him. Now he has to make good on that pledge. Instead of buckling under pressure from the settlers and their political supporters, he should extend the moratorium and begin intensive talks.

If he continues to waver in an attempt to please everyone, both supporters and opponents of an agreement, he will not be able to fulfill his pledge, making a solution more distant, further harming Israel's standing and perhaps leading to a renewed flare-up in the territories.