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Crucial week for Mideast peace as Israel mulls new settlement freeze

The mood in the West Bank darkened this week as Israeli extremists set fire to a mosque. It comes ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s potentially crucial decision on extending the settlement freeze.

An Ultra-orthodox Jewish family look at a construction site in east Jerusalem

A 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank expired last month

In the early hours of Monday morning, extremists apparently from Israeli settlements in the West Bank ushered in what could be a crucial week in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by setting fire to a mosque in the village of Beit Fajjar near Bethlehem.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was quick to condemn the arsonists, saying, "whoever committed this act is a terrorist in every regard, intent on harming any chance for peace and dialogue with the Palestinians. This was a disgraceful act and a stain on the State of Israel and its values."

The attack, which resulted in fights between Palestinian residents and Israeli settlers that had to be broken up by Israeli soldiers, was seen as the latest in what are known as "price tag" operations intended to pressure the Israeli government into refusing to make concessions on Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Saving the talks

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) meets at the start of Middle East peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L), and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R)

The US have urged Israel to extend the settlement freeze by 60 days

A 10-month moratorium on settlement construction expired recently, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being urged by the US to extend this by a further 60 days, in order to keep the Palestinians at the negotiating table.

Over the weekend, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas made further peace talks contingent on a construction freeze in the settlements. Abbas is expected to meet ministers from the Arab League in Libya on Friday in order to discuss whether or not to continue the direct talks with Israel, setting an unofficial deadline for Netanyahu's decision.

The West Bank settlements violate the Oslo accords, the Geneva convention and international law, but enjoy the military protection of the Israeli government. They are considered a non-negotiable, sacred right by powerful right-wing elements in Israeli society and politics. Since the Oslo agreements of 1993, the settlements have increased in population from around 280,000 to over 516,000.

Domestic issues overshadow peace

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli PM Netanyahu is trying to find a compromise ahead of a key Arab meeting later this week

Netanyahu faced a day of tough negotiations with his own cabinet on Tuesday as he mulled the moratorium decision. Israeli organizations were pessimistic about the prospects.

"Right now the prime minister is in a very tight spot with his coalition. It is probably the most right-wing coalition that Israel has ever seen, and the lack of decision-making really reflects that. He seems to be making statements that contradict each other," Adam Werner, executive director of the Young Israeli Forum for Cooperation (YIFC), a non-governmental organization engaged in promoting Israel's integration in Europe and the Middle East, told Deutsche Welle.

Netanyahu is increasingly caught between the expectations of the international community and the right-wing parties in his coalition government. But domestic politics in the US may also be influencing his decision. With mid-term elections looming, many US Democrats apparently fear that failure in Mideast peace talks will overshadow their campaigns.

"I find it very difficult to imagine that the government of Israel will agree to the extension, unless there are extenuating circumstances that we don't know about," said Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. "One extenuating circumstance is if there is extreme pressure being applied to Netanyahu from the United States. I don't mean presidential pressure, but pressure from Israel's friends in Congress - Jewish members of Congress, leaders of the American-Jewish community."

This consideration may even have led to the time period that the US set on the extension. "That's what I don't understand. Why two months,?" wondered Baskin. "I guess they just want to breathe and get through the mid-term elections."

Sweetening the deal

Barack Obama

The Obama administration has apparently offered large concessions to Israel

The US seems so intent on helping Netanyahu to win over his cabinet that the Obama administration has apparently offered large concessions to Israel in return for the extension. David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy claimed last week that the US sent Israel a letter offering to sell some of its most sophisticated weapons to Israel, allow Israel to keep its armed forces in the eastern part of the West Bank, and veto any anti-Israeli United Nations resolutions for one year.

The US promptly denied that such a letter had been sent, but both the US and Israel admitted they were in negotiations with one another, and media reports have since emerged accusing the Obama administration of being deliberately vague about the nature of these concessions. "I think it's quite stupid of the Americans to offer Netanyahu the things they offered in exchange for a 60-day freeze," said Baskin. "It's so not substantive in terms of what needs to be done."

Public opinion cooling

Even as violence keeps erupting in the West Bank - with settler attacks now more and more likely to provoke Palestinian retaliation - in Israel itself public opinion is growing weary of the moratorium debate. "I think it's surprising how under-reported it really is," says Werner. "Even among those who support it and those who oppose it, it seems that no-one is really taking it seriously. The world community is much more engaged than Israeli society."

In fact, according to Baskin, this tiredness is turning relatively moderate Israelis against what they see as intransigent Palestinians. "Most of the Israeli public doesn't support settlements, but there are two things that upset the public here in Israel," he said. "Israelis don't like to be forced to do anything. If they make the decision to do it, it's one thing, but if someone is telling them to do it, even if they want to do it, they'll be opposed to it."

"Another thing is there was a sense that the Palestinians got what they wanted - they think, 'They had 10 months in which to advance negotiations, they didn't do it, so why should we give them another gift?'"

A Palestinian boy looks on, backdropped by Israeli fortifications at the border line with Gaza, during a weekly protest march against Israel's closure of Gaza, in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, Tuesday June 15, 2010. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/ AP)

If peace talks ever do happen, the real issues would be borders, the creation of a Palestinian state and security arrangements.

Opinion polls show that the majority of Israelis do not support the settlers and their tendency to religious and political extremism, but they don't see why the moratorium should be extended. Though Palestinians see a freeze on settlement construction as a necessary preliminary to peace talks, both Israelis and Palestinians would probably agree that if peace talks ever do happen, they would be about completely different issues. But for now, a 60-day extension may be the only way to get that far.

"Let's face it, the issue is not settlement building, the issue is borders, ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state," said Baskin. "They had been talking about a three-month period to conclude the part of negotiations dealing with borders and security arrangements - so two months down the road would be sufficient to indicate whether or not there was a chance of an agreement."

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Nina Haase

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