Washington may be pushing the Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate, but is the peace process really still alive, asks Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah
April 5, 2008
No sooner had US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left Israel on Monday, wrapping up a three-day visit to the region, than Israel began preparatory construction work on thousands of settler units across the occupied West Bank.
The new settlement expansion drive, described by an Israeli official as "phenomenal", includes more than 600 settler units that are to be built on confiscated Arab land in East Jerusalem. The Israeli government also approved the building of additional 800 settler units in the Beitar Illit colony, an ultra-orthodox settlement in the West Bank while Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak last week agreed to the construction of an undisclosed number of prefabs in small settlements in the southern Hebron region to be allocated to new immigrants.
"There are settler units on the way," Roi Lachmanovitch, a spokesman for the Shas Party, a key coalition partner in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government, said on Monday. Other sources within Shas were quoted as saying that Olmert had promised the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, that Israel would authorise construction all over Jerusalem, irrespective of talks with the Palestinians.
The expansion drive, which flies in the face of American efforts to establish a viable Palestinian state, goes hand in hand with the campaign to demolish Arab homes in East Jerusalem and those parts of the West Bank, the so-called Area C, where the Israeli army has sole authority. Earlier, Olmert had vowed to continue building in East Jerusalem and other colonies in the West Bank, arguing that the settlement expansion in no way contradicted the peace process.
"This is going on within the framework of negotiations and the negotiations will continue to progress," said Olmert, adding that Bush's letter of guarantees to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in June 2004 allowed Israel to build in the settlements. "We are not breaking any promises."
Palestinian leaders have appealed to the international community, particularly the United States, to intervene and save the political process from imminent collapse.
"Israel is flying in the face of the peace process. It is lying to the US and the rest of the world," said PA negotiator Saeb Erekat. "Yesterday they said they would stop building and today they say they will be building thousands of settler units on occupied Palestinian land. This can't go on and on. This development is changing the situation on the ground for the worse. Israel is simply not sincere about peace."
Earlier Rice had held extensive meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials, centring on efforts to improve the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank whose day to day existence is disrupted by a network of army checkpoints and roadblocks which make normal economic activity impossible. In his joint meeting with Rice and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in West Jerusalem on Monday, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak reportedly agreed to remove a number of earth mounds placed at the entrances to Palestinian villages and allow Palestinian officials to travel on certain roads in the West Bank.
Scepticism, though, is widespread about Israel's true intentions. Israel has promised repeatedly to lift the roadblocks but has always reneged on the promises following which US officials would politely renew their requests to the Israelis to lift the barriers. One Palestinian official described the "roadblock affair" as a "chronic farce that we shouldn't use dignified language to describe".
The "gestures" or "concessions", as the Israeli media referred to Barak's decisions, also include allowing 700 Palestinian security personnel being trained in Jordan to enter the West Bank town of Jenin. The police cadets were originally supposed to be deployed in Hebron, the largest town in the West Bank, with a population of nearly 600,000. However, the few hundred Israeli settlers living in Hebron seem to have overruled the Israeli government on the issue, forcing it to refuse the deployment of the policemen in the city.
While such measures were viewed in Israeli and American quarters as underscoring Israeli good will towards peace -- some reports even suggested that Rice herself was surprised at "the extent of Israeli concessions" -- the US secretary of state, in an apparent move to appease the Palestinians, said Washington would monitor exactly what Israel is doing to improve Palestinian freedom of movement.
"We want to be much more systematic about what is promised and what is actually carried out," she said.
Rice also voiced optimism that 2008 would see a Palestinian-Israeli agreement "of some sort".
There were reports from Washington this week that the Bush administration might seek an interim agreement or declaration of principles ahead of US President George Bush's visit to Israel in May to take part in celebrations marking Israel's 60th anniversary.
A Palestinian source close to PA President Mahmoud Abbas told Al-Ahram Weekly that, "it is likely that the US will seek to forestall a collapse of the current peace process by getting both sides to reach a joint declaration which will give the impression that the peace process is still alive."
"It would be a face-saving measure to avoid the embarrassment of seeing the effort of eight years by the Bush administration collapse like a house of cards," said the official, who asked for anonymity.
Rice herself has neither confirmed nor denied such reports. While in the Jordanian capital Amman, where she met separately with King Abdullah II and Abbas, she pointed out that the US was still committed to the goal of reaching a peace agreement between Israel and the PA before the end of 2008.
"I don't see any purpose in talking about anything but getting to an agreement. And we need to by the end of 2008, which is what Annapolis set out to do, to get to an agreement that will establish a Palestinian state. That's what we are focussed on."
Both Palestinian and Israeli leaders warn that Rice's optimism is unwarranted given the vast gaps still separating the two sides over such final-status issues as Jerusalem, the Palestinian right of return and the future of Jewish settlements dotting the map of the West Bank.