Middle East peace: one step forward, two steps back

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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The Israeli authorities’ new plans allowing for the marketing of land and the construction of more than 2000 new units in Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank should serve as a wakeup call for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. These announcements come shortly before Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators are scheduled to meet in Jerusalem. It serves as an unfortunate reminder to Kerry that some officials in the Israeli government are intent on harming the peace negotiations which he labored for months to convene, even before they have started. It should also be a reminder to Kerry and the new U.S. Middle East peace envoy Martin Indyk that any delay would serve those who are hostile to a two state solution.

This attitude is best expressed by Alice in Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking-Glass when she says, “Here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.” Alice’s observation is very much a case in point for anyone who would like to embark on a peace process in the Middle East. While attention to detail in complex peace negotiations is necessary, momentum and steady progress are best to rally the public around the cause of peace. One of the harsh lessons from the Oslo years is that the determination of those who oppose peace is even more resolute than those who support it. They proved that they were willing to take any measures necessary to prevent peaceful solution to this decades-long conflict, including the use of extreme violence, and they succeeded.

The litmus test of Israeli sincerity in regards to peace with the Palestinians must be its settlement policy in the West Bank. No single policy sows more distrust among the Palestinians as the building of more and more houses on occupied land.

Yossi Mekelberg

The litmus test of Israeli sincerity in regards to peace with the Palestinians must be its settlement policy in the West Bank. No single policy sows more distrust among the Palestinians as the building of more and more houses on occupied land. It is visible and offensive for many of them. They see how the land intended to form part of their future independent state is being gobbled up by Jewish settlements in which half a million settlers live. Secretary Kerry may want to learn from the experience of one of his predecessors James Baker, who in his efforts to convene the Madrid peace conference back in 1991 met an obstructive Israeli government led by Prime Minister Itzhak Shamir and the then-Housing Minister Ariel Sharon. In a similar shuttle diplomacy to Kerry’s, Baker was greeted every time he landed in Tel Aviv by an Israeli government announcement of the building of a new settlement. The George Bush Sr. Administration, in which he served, reacted in a way almost unprecedented in U.S.-Israel relations. Secretary Baker went before the typically Israel-friendly U.S. Congress and asserted that, “Nothing has made my job of trying to find Arab and Palestinian partners for Israel more difficult than being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive.” He made it very clear that in his view settlement activity was the biggest obstacle for peace. The Bush administration did not stop at publicly reprimanding Israel, but also persuaded Congress to suspend $10 billion in loan guarantees, badly needed by Israel at the time to absorb nearly a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Many years later James Baker would criticise President Obama for not following a similar course of action and taking a tougher stance on Netanyahu’s settlement policies.

No commitment to peace

The announcement to expand settlements came after a recent surprising turn of events when it seemed that Prime Minister Netanyahu had managed to overcome those in his cabinet who opposed making concessions to the Palestinians. Following a bitter debate with some of his colleagues in government, he secured support for the release of Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of goodwill towards the Palestinian leadership and people. This was not an easy decision considering that a number of these prisoners were involved in the killing of Israeli citizens. He endured relatively severe criticism for this decision, including by members of his own party. One cannot help thinking that the decision to announce the building of more houses in the occupied West Bank was a cynical act to appease his political supporters, and can only cast doubt on his and his government’s interest in peace with the neighbouring Palestinians.

Irrespective of Israeli settlements, the West Bank is still a very small place, lacking in natural resourses and highly populated. Building 121 settlements, which are illegal according to International Law, and in addition doing little to remove around 100 outposts that even the Israeli government itself admits are illegal, are a clear declaration of intent – these settlements and most of their half a million plus inhabitants are there to stay. Though the settlements themselves take up only one percent of the entire West Bank, 10 percent of the area is under the jurisdiction of the settlements and 34 percent under the jurisdiction of the settlements’ ‘Regional Councils’.

Even a quick glance at the map of the settlements and their constant expansion, let alone the on-going confiscation of land and resources, demonstrates an ever-shrinking space for a viable independent Palestinian state. The building of the security barrier added to the loss of Palestinian land and has made the lives of many ordinary Palestinians unbearable. It leaves the more than two million Palestinians who live in the West Bank almost held hostage to the security and economic needs of Israeli settlers and the Israeli army. Moreover, human rights organisations consistently report violent attacks on Palestinians by Israeli settlers. Only this week, the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem reported an alleged vicious attack by settlers on a Palestinian shepherd, which the Israeli army is reluctant to investigate.

Saeb Erekat, the veteran Palestinian chief negotiator for the peace talks, has repeatedly warned both the Israelis and Americans that the Palestinian leadership would find it difficult to negotiate peace with Israel while the millions of Palestinians watch Israeli cranes all over the West Bank building new houses for Jewish settlers. Some might argue that the Israeli settlement policy will come under the ultimate scrutiny around the negotiations table, when it will have to reveal which settlements Israel is ready to remove and what territory she is ready to concede to an independent Palestinian state. The freezing of building of settlements is in this case just a sideshow. As true as this might be, the refusal to freeze the expansion of the settlements sends a strong message and is an indication of the overall Israeli approach to negotiations.

What might appear to be an act of strength and defiance by the Israeli Prime Minister against the international community may after all be a sign of weakness and even of fear by him and his government of making real progress in the peace process. They may fear backlash from within Israeli society and even the possibility of losing power. However, if Prime Minister Netanyahu wishes to act as a statesman and not as a mere politician, he should follow the advice of the Wizard of Oz that, “True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid.” Stopping the expansion of settlements might be the first sign of such courage on the road to peace.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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