The Obama Administration made a significant error when it insisted Israel totally freeze construction in all settlements, forcing the Palestinians to jump on the bandwagon and make this a precondition for further talks. Currently, any construction is only proceeding within the existing boundaries of the settlements, thereby taking no more land, so should not in any way impede peace. Furthermore, negotiations, which included generous Israeli offers of a Palestinian state, were conducted from 1993 to 2008 without such a freeze on construction. The US seems to have realised its error and moderated its position accordingly. The failure to obtain hoped for offers of reciprocal confidence building measures from the Arab states may also have changed US thinking. It now appears Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ continuing demand for a freeze is either a ploy to avoid negotiating, or simply the result of a need to appear tough to his constituents. However, many in our media are insisting the US adhere to its unreasonable position, while others either implicitly or explicitly exaggerate the level of settlement construction and the importance of this issue. (Perhaps they should note what the Washington Post pointed out in a editorial on Nov. 4, namely that “In private, senior Palestinian officials readily concede that the [settlement] issue is secondary.”)
In the Nov. 7 Age, Jason Koutsoukis claimed efforts to restart peace talks “suffered a major blow… after the Obama Administration demonstrated that it had given up on demands for Israel to freeze settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.” Having labeled Hillary Clinton confused or ill-advised for her comments on Israel’s offers of settlement restraint being unprecedented, Tony Walker, in the Nov. 6 Australian Financial Review, complained her efforts “leave open questions about whether the Obama Administration is prepared to expend the sort of political capital that might be necessary to advance peace efforts.” Meanwhile, in the Nov. 1 Sun-Herald and Sunday Canberra Times Paul Daley complained, totally incorrectly, that the Netanyahu Government “has been obtuse about both the expansion of existing settlements and the construction of new Jewish towns in the West Bank.” No new Jewish towns have been established or constructed since 1998.
The Nov. 16 Age editorial argued that Israel must freeze all building in settlements. It claimed that for the two-state solution to be kept alive, “Mr Abbas’ substantive complaint must be addressed, regardless of the doubts Israelis might hold about his intentions. No Palestinian leader will be able to conduct credible negotiations on a two-state solution while settlement activity continues to expand.” It also called on US President Barack Obama to demonstrate “resolve” on the issue.
On SBS TV “News” on Nov. 2, reporter Vesna Nazor claimed, “The Americans blinked first after failing to get the Israelis to budge on halting settlement expansion.” First, the Israelis did not refuse to budge. They have offered unprecedented restraint. Secondly, the settlements are not expanding in any meaningful sense.
The SBS TV “News” gave extensive coverage on Nov. 5 to a press conference given by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in which he declared his pessimism about the future of the peace process and, unsurprisingly, blamed Israel. Introducing the report, Anton Enus stated that Erekat had “warned that Israel’s continued expansion of Jewish settlements had brought the stalled peace process to a moment of truth.” It would have been more appropriate to say Erekat had claimed that, rather than implicitly endorsing the statement by saying he had “warned” about it. If there was any doubt left, reporter Keith Breene removed it by saying that Israeli settlements “have become the main obstacle to peace talks.” He continued, “Israel will only agree to temporarily limit building work.” Viewers would never have guessed this was further than any Israeli government had ever gone before. There was no Israeli response to Erekat’s comments. Almost as an afterthought, the report mentioned the massive arms shipment from Iran to Hezbollah that was intercepted by Israel, which, in fact, has massive implications for the Middle East and should have been a major story.
On Abbas’ announcement that he would not contest the next Palestinian election, ABC TV “Lateline” host Tony Jones asserted, on Nov. 9, “The main sticking point is the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.” Reporter Anne Barker concluded her report, “The continued expansion of settlements and outposts has become the major factor stopping efforts to revive the peace process, with Palestinian leaders adamant they won’t return to negotiations until Israel commits to a total freeze on all settlement activity. But with another 3,000 Jewish homes already approved for construction, it’s hard to see that happening in the near future.” There was no mention of Israel’s proposed offer of restraint on all new building after that construction is completed.