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Without settlement freeze, no peace for the Middle East

Raed Omari

Published: Updated:

With no clear-cut solution to the settlement dilemma, the projected U.S.-led peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis would be just talks for the sake of talking.

This is definitely not to underestimate the determined diplomacy of the U.S Secretary of State, John Kerry, which resulted in breaking the deadlock on peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, because this is in itself a huge step forward.

But the success of the long-awaited talks will be determined by reaching a breakthrough agreement on Israeli settlement building, because it lies at the heart of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

Fully aware of the supremacy of borders over all other final status issues, including Jerusalem, refugees and water, in ensuring the success of negotiations with the Israelis, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas linked his agreement to resume peace talks with a written guarantee by Kerry that the basis of the negotiations will be Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

Statehood above all else

First and foremost, it is statehood that is important to the Palestinians and all the Arabs and that is what makes them cling to the pre-1967 borders as an irreversible condition for peace talks.

For the Israelis, increasing the Jewish presence in the West Bank and in the holy city of Jerusalem – actually changing the demographic reality – lies at the heart of the Jewish state's theology and ideology.

Raed Omari

Similarly and in a counteraction to the idea of statehood, the Israelis have been deploying earth-moving equipment in the West Bank and east Jerusalem to expand their settlement constructions.

For the Israelis, increasing the Jewish presence in the West Bank and in the holy city of Jerusalem – actually changing the demographic reality – lies at the heart of the Jewish state's theology and ideology.

In other words, Abbas and the Palestinian negotiators will be faced with stubborn Israeli counterparts, seeing in the settlement expansion an irreversible issue around which the whole idea of the Jewish state of Israel is based.

The Palestinians are fully aware of the Israeli determination in this regard and, coupled with the lack of pressure from the international community on Israel to compromise, they have been silent, perplexed and thus unenthusiastic about resuming peace talks.

The Israeli settlement dilemma

No final resolution to borders and Jerusalem, the major dilemmas of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has been reached throughout the history of negotiations between the two sides, beginning the 1991 Madrid Conference, through the 1993 Oslo Accords to the present, simply because the Israelis have made no concessions.

Direct negotiations between the two sides broke down in late 2010 over Israel's settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, where, along with the Gaza Strip, Palestinians seek to locate their state.

Actually, as borders and settlement constructions constitute a major dilemma for the Palestinians, hindering their ambitions of statehood, it is also a problem for the Israelis.

Palestinians fear settlements, built on land Israel captured in the 1967 war, will deny them the viable state they hope to create in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

On one hand, the Israelis are unable to evacuate the West Bank and east Jerusalem as it has to do with the theology and ideology of the Jewish state and, on the other hand, they find themselves in an embarrassing, or at least uncomfortable situation, being unable to please the U.S. and its Arab friends.

The Israeli settlement dilemma was best expressed in a recent opinion piece by Yossi Sarid published by the Haaretz newspaper in which he said: "Signing the Oslo Accords without committing ourselves to evacuating the settlements was a horrendous mistake, but things would have been a lot worse without them."

The shape of the state

So, the whole thing has to do with compromise from both sides but more from the Israelis who, depending on facts on the ground, are seemingly unwilling to do so – at least for the time being or if pushed by the U.S.

It is probably related to the visions of the Palestinians and the Israelis on the shape of the Palestinian state.

For the Palestinians, as put in the Arab Peace Initiative, the independent state is to be established within the pre-1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital in order to be independent, viable and in peace and harmony with Israel.

But how it is viewed by the Israelis in the light of the settlement expansion and the Separation Wall is the question around which the whole negotiations will be based, if the Palestinian state is on the agenda of the Israelis at all.

In brief, there is a paradoxical stance in the Israeli administration that is complicating reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians and Arabs. When when resolving such a complicated dilemma as settlement, then there must be serious negotiations, but the topic is often avoided.

Such vague Israeli position on the settlement constructions was once expressed by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has reportedly described demands for a further building freeze as unacceptable preconditions for peace talks and said the settlement issue should be decided at the negotiating table.

But on the negotiation table, the Palestinians will be faced with complicated facts on the grounds: unrestrained settlement expansion and a new demographic reality.

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Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via raed_omari1977@yahoo.com, or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.