by Hagit Ofran, Peace Now Settlement Watch Director
Posted: August 26, 2009 04:00 PM
Following the meeting between US Senator Mitchell and Israeli PM Netanyahu, it seems that Israel and the US are getting close to some kind of agreement or understanding about a settlement freeze.
A settlement freeze is one of the key factors in order to enable a resumption of peace talks.
Unfortunately, I doubt I have to begin to look for another job. Settlement activity will always be one of the most important issues on the political agenda of our region.
In Israel the debate continues, in both the media and amongst activists, over whether a freeze will actually create results for peacemakers.
Netanyahu, I believe, will try to avoid final status negotiations; his work premise is to try to drag out the freeze talks, when he does finally reach an understanding over the settlements, to keep it as vague as possible, granting him leeway to interpret it as he sees fit.
As an Israeli who believes in the Two State Solution and who works daily to monitor and expose settlement expansion, I believe that any declared settlement freeze should be required to meet some minimum criteria, so to really enable any future negotiations.
Such criteria should include:
No loopholes. There must be no "loopholes" that will permit Israel to evade or undermine the freeze agreement, as was done in previous governments. According to reports, it seems pretty clear by now that a settlement freeze agreement is going to exist side-by-side with an Israeli insistence on completing a certain number of units already under construction. While we wish this were not the case, we recognize that this is a regrettable exception, rather than a loophole through which Israel could over time drag most of the West Bank.
Transparency. A list of any settlement construction to be completed must be public. Assuming Israel will insist, over US objections, that it will finish a finite number of settlement units already under construction, the list of those units must be made public. There is zero trust when it comes to Israel's intentions with respect to settlement construction and there will be zero trust in Israeli commitments regarding these units. Outside verification will be critical.
No US permission to build anything. Under no circumstances can a settlement freeze agreement include US approval, permission, or de facto acceptance of continued Israeli settlement construction, anywhere. If Israel is going to insist on "completing" a finite number of units already under construction, the US will have to find a formula that makes clear that it in no way condones Israel doing so, or President Obama will become the first president in US history to formally and officially approve settlement construction. And the US will have to make clear that the locations of this continued construction do not imply any new US understandings, formal or informal, about where Israel can build including in East Jerusalem.
No US permission to build anything in settlements in the future. Under no circumstances can a settlement freeze agreement imply or be permitted in anyway to be interpreted as implying that once the freeze period is over, the US will no longer disapprove of Israel building in settlements.
Freeze must include planning. For a freeze to be meaningful it must include stopping all new plans for construction in settlements -- no new plans submitted, approved, considered etc.... Otherwise planning is a constant sword hanging over freeze and over the political process a freeze is supposed to help launch.
Netanyahu, despite his extreme right wing coalition, has slowly begun to distance himself from his pre-election campaign declarations, regarding expansion of settlements, construction in E1 and in Jerusalem.
I think the above criteria on a settlement freeze can be met, even with the currant Israeli government.
In addition, my experience tells me that Israeli public support for US peace steps will begin to rise dramatically the moment Israelis sit down in face to face negotiations, with recognizable and personable Palestinian and Arab leaders, in a mutual effort to reach an agreement.
This should surely be the next immediate step.