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Do indirect peace talks have a shot?

JERUSALEM – Although Israeli and Palestinian leaders are pessimistic about the chances of a breakthrough in the U.S.-mediated proximity talks that begin this week, the Americans hope the process itself will generate a new peacemaking dynamic.

Whether or not the parties make headway, Israeli analysts anticipate a major U.S. peace push this fall.

Over the past few months, U.S. officials have made it clear that the Obama administration sees Israeli-Palestinian peace as a major U.S. interest. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the point in a Washington speech last month. Not only does the lack of peace threaten Israel’s future and hold back the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, it “destabilizes the region and beyond,” she said.

That position has translated into tough messages to both sides from the Obama administration’s special envoy for Middle East peace, George Mitchell, who got the two sides to agree to launch the indirect talks and is now set to mediate between them.

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Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak talks with the Obama administration’s special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv before their April 25 flight to New York. Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

Mitchell has made clear that he has no intention of merely shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah carrying messages, but that he intends to put forward American bridging proposals wherever they might be helpful. He also has indicated to both sides that if the talks falter, the Obama administration will not be slow to blame the party it holds responsible. Indeed, Palestinian officials say Mitchell told them that the United States would take significant diplomatic steps against any side it believed was holding back progress.

The Americans see the proximity talks as a four-month preparatory corridor leading to direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The strategy seems to be to get the process moving quickly and with as much intensity as possible until next September, when the Israeli moratorium on building in west bank settlements is due to expire.

Then, Israeli analysts say, President Obama will reconsider his options: If the talks are progressing well, Washington will try to persuade the Israelis to extend the building freeze and the Palestinians to agree to direct negotiations. But if the talks are foundering, Obama may consider putting an American peace plan on the table and calling an international peace conference to pressure the parties to move forward, according to a recent report by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, which quoted senior administration officials.

Israeli media also have reported that Obama told several key European leaders that if the talks stall, he will convene an international peace conference in the fall.

The Israeli aim is first and foremost not to lose the blame game.

The Netanyahu administration in Jerusalem sees in the proximity talks as a means of managing the conflict and keeping the international community at bay as long as it is seen to be giving peacemaking a chance. Israeli officials have little faith in the Palestinians’ negotiating intentions and suspect them of planning to use the talks to generate further U.S. pressure on Israel.

Thus, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone out of his way to convince the Americans of his good faith. Contrary to his previous position — that core issues like borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security and water could be discussed only in direct talks —Netanyahu has agreed to have everything on the table in the proximity phase.

More important, he pressed for a vote in his Likud Party last week deferring internal party elections for two years, defeating inveterate party hawks, and giving himself new wiggle room to maneuver in the peacemaking arena.

In the proximity talks, Netanyahu wants to discuss security and water issues first. He has ordered his staff to work on an eight-point brief on security prepared by the previous Israeli government under Ehud Olmert. Before Israel makes any commitments on permanent borders, Netanyahu wants to clarify the precise details of Palestinian demilitarization, Israeli rights in Palestinian air space, the functioning of border crossing points, and the deployment of Israeli forces along the Palestinians’ eastern border with Jordan to prevent arms smuggling.

At one point Netanyahu considered offering the Palestinians an interim mini-state with temporary borders, according to Israeli media, who reported that President Shimon Peres and Defense Minster Ehud Barak, both apparently with Netanayu’s approval, tried to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept an interim state on about 60 percent of the west bank.

This would have removed any lingering doubts about Israel’s commitment to the two-state solution without entailing a major Israeli withdrawal from the west bank.

But Abbas, fearful that the temporary measure could become permanent, quickly shot down the idea. A spokesman for Netanyahu told JTA that the interim plan “was out there” and that Abbas had rejected it.

Instead, Netanyahu may be ready to hand over more west bank land to Palestinian political and security control in a goodwill gesture designed to show Israel’s ultimate readiness to roll back its occupation of the west bank.

Like Israel, the Palestinians’ primary goal is not to lose the blame game.

Abbas is convinced that a deal with Netanyahu’s hawkish government is not possible. Leading Palestinians for months have been saying that talks with the Netanyahu government would be futile.

In a speech to his Fatah Party in late April, Abbas called on Obama to “impose” a solution that would lead to an independent Palestinian state.

“Mr. President,” he said, “since you believe in this, it is your duty to take steps toward a solution and to impose a solution.”

Israeli intelligence has been warning that Abbas’ aim is to get the international community, led by the United States, to impose a settlement on Israel. The Palestinian leader also wants Washington in his corner should he decide to go to the United Nations for a binding resolution recognizing a Palestinian state and delineating its borders.

Given the current lack of trust between Israel and the Palestinians, American thinking along similar lines is starting to take shape.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. national security adviser, is proposing that Obama put a new set of peace parameters on the table and urge the parties to negotiate a final peace deal within the U.S.-initiated framework. Should either side refuse, Brzezinski says the United States should get U.N. endorsement of the plan, putting unbearable international pressure on the recalcitrant party.

Brzezinski reportedly outlined this position to Obama in a meeting of former national security advisers convened in late March by Gen. James Jones, the current incumbent.

This is precisely the type of scenario Israeli analysts are predicting for September, especially if the proximity talks fail to make progress: binding American peace parameters serving as new terms of reference for an international peace conference and subsequent Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

According to senior Israeli officials, the conference would be held under the auspices of the international Quartet — the grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia — with the aim of forging a wide international consensus for the creation of a Palestinian state.

JTA

 
 

Reaction mixed to announcement on easing of Gaza blockade

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On Monday, the day after Israel announced that it was easing the Gaza blockade, an Israeli truck driver walks by trucks filled with goods bound for Gaza at the Kerem Shalom border crossing. Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Israel’s decision to loosen its blockade of Gaza is drawing both praise and criticism.

Israel’s security cabinet voted on Sunday to ease land-based civilian imports to the Gaza Strip; the naval blockade will remain in place.

The move garnered praise from the White House, which released a statement Sunday saying it welcomed the new policy toward Gaza.

“Once implemented, we believe these arrangements should significantly improve conditions for Palestinians in Gaza while preventing the entry of weapons,” the statement said. “We strongly re-affirm Israel’s right to self-defense, and our commitment to work with Israel and our international partners to prevent the illicit trafficking of arms and ammunition into Gaza.”

Turkey, which lost nine citizens when Israeli commandos raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla determined to break the blockade, continued to slam Israel following the announcement.

“If the Israeli government really wishes to prove that they have given up the act of piracy and terror, they should primarily apologize and claim responsibility in the slaying of nine people on May 31,” said Egemen Bagis, Turkish minister for European Union affairs, according to The New York Times.

The blockade of Gaza was put into place by Israel and Egypt in June 2007 after Hamas violently wrested power in the Gaza Strip from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. It was designed to thwart the import of weapons or weapons-capable material into Gaza and pressure the coastal strip’s rulers into releasing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was taken captive in a cross-border raid in 2006.

An economic blockade had been in place since Shalit’s abduction.

Pressure on Israel to ease the latter blockade, which had been climbing steadily, increased dramatically following last month’s Israeli interception of the Gaza-bound flotilla.

Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday evening to announce the easing of the blockade, reportedly played a central role in establishing the new protocols for Gaza. The Quartet — a grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia — issued a statement after Israel’s announcement calling for its rapid implementation and an easing of the conditions in the Gaza Strip.

Under the new rules, all items except those on a published blacklist will be allowed into Gaza. Until now, only items specifically permitted were allowed into Gaza. The blacklist will be limited to weapons and war materiel, including “dual-use items” that can be used for civilian or military purposes. Construction materials for housing projects and projects under international supervision will be permitted, according to a statement issued by Israel’s security cabinet.

The plan also calls for increasing the volume of goods entering Gaza and opening up more crossings, as well as streamlining the movement of people to and from the strip for medical treatment.

Despite the easing of the land blockade, Israel will continue to inspect all goods bound for Gaza by sea at the port of Ashdod.

Israel called on the international community “to stop the smuggling of weapons and war materiels into Gaza.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague praised Israel’s plan but took a wait-and-see attitude.

“The test now is how the new policy will be carried out,” he said.

German officials called for a complete end to the blockade in the wake of Israel’s refusal to allow Germany’s minister of economic cooperation and development, Dirk Niebel, to enter Gaza during a four-day visit to the region.

For their part, Hamas officials said the easing of the blockade was not good enough to relieve the distress of the Gaza population. They called the changes “cosmetic,” according to Ynet.

In Israel, the announcement received mixed reviews. Some lawmakers, including ones from the centrist Kadima Party and the center-left Labor Party, criticized the government for buckling under pressure, saying the move would strengthen Hamas. But others, such as Labor’s Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, praised it. Arab-Israeli Knesset member Hanin Zoabi called it insufficient, saying the blockade should be lifted completely.

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the French news agency AFP that the blockade should be abolished altogether.

“These steps alone are not sufficient,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said, “and all efforts must be exerted to ease the suffering of the people of Gaza.”

JTA

 
 

Obama-Netanyahu meeting looks good, but what did they talk about?

WASHINGTON – The visuals were perfect, but the meaning was elusive.

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat together Tuesday, joshing and smiling, trying to project a clear message: The rift was over. Israel and the United States are on the same track again.

“In terms of my relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I know the press, both in Israel and stateside, enjoys seeing if there’s news there,” Obama said. “But the fact of the matter is that I’ve trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since I met him before I was elected president, and have said so both publicly and privately.”

The meeting capped months of tensions sparked by Israel’s announcement in March of a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during an official visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.

The image of a friendly encounter between the two leaders was almost tainted in the lead-up to the meeting when it was leaked that Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, had warned in a private conversation of a “tectonic rift” between the two countries. Oren later explained that he had been misquoted: “Shift,” he said.

In any case, U.S. officials said in a rare on-the-record call last Friday, there is no fissure.

“There’s absolutely no rift between the United States and Israel,” Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, said in the conference call.

Dan Shapiro, the senior National Security Council official who runs the Israel desk, said he “can certainly underscore the incredible richness and intensity and quality of the exchange between our governments in military channels, in political channels, in intelligence channels.”

Officials were brimming with superlatives. Details, however, were lacking, and in some areas there was evident disagreement.

The leaders agreed, for instance, on the need to go to direct talks with the Palestinians; the Palestinian Authority has resisted them pending a full settlement freeze.

Obama, however, set a deadline of sorts when he made clear that he wanted such talks to start before September, when Netanyahu’s self-imposed 10-month settlement freeze lapses.

“My hope is that once direct talks have begun, well before the moratorium has expired, that that will create a climate in which everybody feels a greater investment in success,” Obama said.

Israeli officials, speaking on and off the record, made it clear that they were not confident the Palestinians were ready for direct talks and would not commit to a deadline.

The sides also spoke of confidence-building measures. Pressed for specifics, Obama cited the need for the Palestinians to further inhibit incitement, and called on Israel to “widen the scope” of Palestinian security responsibilities in the west bank, given the advances that a U.S.-led team has had in training Palestinian security forces.

In the meetings before and after lunch, however, Netanyahu and his team suggested that the Israelis were not confident enough in the Palestinians to assume greater security control in areas outside their current purview of a handful of cities.

Most tellingly, Obama administration officials said the peace process and moving to direct talks was reason No. 1 for the Obama-Netanyahu meeting.

Israeli officials placed it a distant third behind delivering assurances to Israel that the United States would not press Israel for nuclear transparency, and U.S. assistance in shepherding Israel past the crisis sparked by Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on an aid flotilla that aimed to breach Israel’s embargo of the Gaza Strip.

Still, the Israeli team emerged from the meetings reassured and even jovial. The nuclear issue was key.

“The United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine its security interests,” Obama said, referring to his administration’s efforts to get more countries to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Israeli officials had raised concerns after a U.S.-hosted conference in May concluded with an agreement to consider the issue of Israel. U.S. officials said later that the issue should only be considered subsequent to a comprehensive, permanent peace, which is Israel’s position.

The United States and Israel have a longstanding agreement to maintain ambiguity on Israel’s nuclear capacity. Israel is believed to maintain an arsenal of up to 200 nuclear warheads.

Netanyahu thanked Obama for “reaffirming the longstanding U.S. commitments to Israel on matters of vital strategic importance.”

Especially impressive to the Israelis, and to pro-Israel lobbyists that have fretted about the ostensible rift, was how Obama framed the announcement.

“We strongly believe that given its size, its history, the region that it’s in and the threats that are leveled against us — against it — that Israel has unique security requirements,” Obama said. “It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. And that’s why we remain unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security.”

The remark spoke to the “kishkes” factor — the concern among some pro-Israel groups about whether Obama has an intuitive, gut understanding of Israel’s security needs.

“This recognition by the United States of Israel’s security needs is a testament to the common understanding of the complexities of the Middle East situation,” B’nai B’rith International said in a statement.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee said, “For over 60 years Israel has offered its hand in peace, demonstrating again and again its willingness to make real and heartrending sacrifices — altering borders, relinquishing territory, uprooting families and entire communities — in the pursuit of peace,” the organization noted.

Israeli officials said they were especially pleased with U.S. efforts to push back pressure for an international inquiry into the flotilla raid, which left nine Turks dead — including one Turkish-American citizen — and which has disrupted ties among Turkey, the United States, and Israel.

Netanyahu also said he was pleased by the Iran sanctions Obama helped shepherd through the United Nations Security Council, as well as congressional sanctions that became law last week.

JTA

 
 

Facing confrontation on Israel, Presbyterian Church manages a compromise

WASHINGTON – U.S. Jews and Presbyterians say they have salvaged a fragile unity of purpose from an assembly that was poised to create a rift between the two faiths.

The outcome of last week’s General Assembly in Minneapolis of the Presbyterian Church (USA) was remarkable in that all sides in the contentious debate — Jewish groups and the authors of a controversial report on the Middle East that had alarmed the Jews — agreed that the outcome was better than any side had expected.

Rather than adopt the report’s recommendations, including sanctions against Israel and divestment, the assembly revised the report’s recommendations and adopted an amended resolution that both camps applauded as evenhanded.

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Katharine Henderson, the president of the Presbyterian Church USA’s Auburn Theological Seminary, was key to facilitating a compromise resolution on the Middle East July 9 at the church’s assembly. Courtesy of Auburn Theological Seminary

Ron Shive, who chaired the Middle East Study Committee, released a letter to the assembly prior to the vote urging endorsement of the changes that incorporated some of the concerns raised by Jewish groups.

“A week ago, it looked as if the Presbyterian Church (USA) was going to enact a version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within its own body, so divided were we on all sides,” the letter began. “Today, we still have disagreements on items in the report, on methods we should pursue, on arguments we should make. But today, by God’s grace, we have discovered that together, we may actually be more faithful and effective in seeking peace with justice for both Palestinians and Israelis than separately.”

The president of the church’s Auburn Theological Seminary, Katharine Henderson, who was key to facilitating the dialogue on the resolution, said the Presbyterians who favored the Palestinian cause had been unaware of the prominence within the Jewish and Israeli communities of groups that took Palestinian needs into consideration.

Conversely, Jewish groups had not internalized the degree to which Presbyterians, and other Christians, are moved by the plight of the diminishing numbers of Palestinian Christians who have been squeezed out because of the conflict. Those sympathies often lead to broader sympathies for the Palestinians.

“I think that people came from very polarized places supporting the narrative that they had been persuaded by, so there was a pro-Palestinian camp and a pro-Israel camp,” she said.

She co-authored the letter Shive sent before the vote. The letter anticipated a more healthy dialogue.

“Beyond any expectation, we find ourselves discovering a new model of ministry together, a model committed to seeking, hearing, and responding to the fullness of narratives and commitments with the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, Jews, Christians, and Muslims,” it said.

The culmination was that in votes last Friday in Minneapolis, the assembly rejected sanctions and divestment as a means of protesting Israel’s Jewish settlements in the west bank and its blockade of the Gaza Strip, as well as theological critiques of Zionism that Jewish groups said bordered on the anti-Semitic.

The assembly resolution that eventually passed recognized both Israeli and Palestinian claims in the conflict.

The consensus encompassed the church’s most strident critics of Israeli policy and an array of Jewish groups including organizations that often lean conservative on pro-Israel issues, such as CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. It was critical to maintain that consensus in the coming months, the sides said, in order to keep positions from hardening down the road.

Ethan Felson, the director of domestic concerns for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish public policy umbrella organization, credited Henderson for facilitating dialogue rather than confrontation between the two sides.

“Many people who are passionate on all sides live in echo chambers,” Felson told JTA on Monday after hosting Henderson on a conference call with JCPA constituent groups. “When you develop genuine relationships with people with contrasting views, oftentimes you recognize that it’s possible for our narratives to overlap rather than conflict.” Felson also attended the assembly.

Henderson said the challenge was the devolution of the argument into pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian camps within the church. At an assembly with the sides setting up competing booths, she and others endeavored to get the sides to communicate.

“Over the course of the General Assembly, as people began to listen to each other, they realized the importance of the other narrative and really began to learn why people felt the way they did,” she told JTA.

A coalition of 12 national Jewish groups signed a JCPA statement welcoming the rejections of the problematic recommendations on Israel prepared by the church’s Middle East Study Committee.

“Rejection of overtures calling for the use of divestment and labeling Israeli policy as apartheid demonstrate a desire for broader understanding in the quest for peace,” the statement said. “The General Assembly has modeled a more inclusive voice on the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

There were qualifications: The JCPA statement noted with disappointment that the assembly deferred for further consideration a paper recommending improvements in Presbyterian-Jewish relations that has been long in preparation.

The Anti-Defamation League issued a separate statement that was sharper in its disappointment. Though the ADL credited the assembly for actions that “averted a rupture,” it slammed the conference’s recommendation that the U.S. government consider withholding aid as a means of pressuring Israel.

What made the outcome extraordinary, participants said, was that the drafters of the report saw its effective rejection as an improvement as well. The assembly endorsed the positive elements of the report — promoting hope, love, and reconciliation. But instead of disseminating the report, the assembly tasked the committee with coming up with eight representative, authentic narratives — four Israeli, four Palestinian — for consideration.

Shive told the Los Angeles Times that he did not see the changes to the recommendations arising out of the report as weakening the Middle East Study Committee’s argument pressing for greater consideration of the Palestinians.

“I don’t think that’s watering down,” he said, referring to language recognizing Israel’s security needs. “I think that’s listening to our Jewish partners and saying, ‘This is something that needs to be in the report.’”

Dexter Van Zile, the Christian media analyst for CAMERA, a pro-Israel monitoring group that often sharply hits back at Israel criticism, said it was incumbent on Jewish groups to recognize the depth among Christians of sympathy for the Palestinians.

“One of the things I have learned in the past few years is that there really is a genuine concern on the part of the activists; it’s genuine,” said Van Zile, who attended the assembly. “People who ignore that concern and dismiss it aren’t going to get anywhere.”

Conversing with pro-Palestinian activists has the potential of introducing pro-Israel concerns about burgeoning anti-Semitism in the Middle East, he noted.

“You have to address Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and you have to talk about some of the underlying causes of hostility to Israel.”

Henderson pressed the case for follow-up at the local level, perhaps extending to joint Jewish-Presbyterian projects such as investment in the west bank economy, and face-to-face encounters between Jews and Palestinians such as those organized by her seminary.

Letting the good will engendered by the dialogue at the assembly lapse, she warned, might harden positions two years from now at the next assembly.

“It’s incumbent upon those of us who were there, myself included, and all of us in this coalition,” Henderson said, “that we are accountable to each other to continue the work with each other in the church and with our Jewish and Palestinian partners.”

JTA

 
 

Why Israel allowed the settlement freeze to expire

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Bulldozers get to work in the Israeli west bank settlement of Revava on Sept. 27, the day after Israel’s 10-month settlement construction freeze expired. Wagdi Ashtiyeh/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – In the four weeks since direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed, settlement construction has been identified widely as the most immediate obstacle to the survival of negotiations.

In media accounts about the diplomatic standoff over the issue, Israel’s decision not to extend its self-imposed 10-month freeze on settlement building has been portrayed as a slap in the face to the Obama administration, deepening Israel’s occupation of the west bank and creating more stumbling blocks to a final peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians.

News Analysis

This week, world leaders reportedly telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to urge him to extend the freeze. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for an end to settlement building following a meeting in Paris with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Quartet peacemaking envoy Tony Blair met with Netanyahu twice over four days. All to no avail.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, say they will wait a week before carrying out the threat of withdrawing from the peace talks.

“Of course we don’t want to end negotiations; we want to continue,” Abbas told Europe 1 radio, according to Israel’s daily Haaretz. “But if colonization continues, we will be forced to end them.”

In Israel, the only response is the rumbling of earth-moving equipment headed for construction sites in the west bank.

That’s because what is perceived around the world as Israeli stubbornness is seen much differently in Israel. The differences in outlook cut to the heart not only of how Israelis view these negotiations but how they view the future border between Israel and a Palestinian state.

In Jerusalem, it is the Palestinians who are seen as stubborn for sticking to their insistence that settlement building be halted before coming to the negotiating table. Never before had such a precondition been imposed on negotiations; in the past, Israelis and Palestinians talked while both continued to build in their respective west bank communities.

Having offered the freeze unilaterally 10 months ago to coax the Palestinians back to the negotiating table and satisfy U.S. demands for an Israeli goodwill gesture, the Israeli government sees itself as the accommodating party whose gesture was never reciprocated. Rather, it took the Palestinian nine months to agree to resume negotiations, leaving virtually no time for substantive progress before the freeze expired.

Then there are the political considerations: Netanyahu’s right-leaning coalition partners made clear that extending the freeze was a nonstarter. Perhaps most important, however, the freeze was seen by many Israelis as unfair.

The vast majority of the 300,000 or so Jews who live in the west bank are families living in bedroom communities within easy commuting distance of Jerusalem or metropolitan Tel Aviv. While some Israelis moved to the settlements for ideological reasons, for many the motivating factor was economic: Housing was much cheaper in the west bank than in Israel proper.

What’s more, for decades the government offered Israelis economic incentives to settle across the Green Line — the 1949 armistice line that marked the Jordan-Israel border until the 1967 Six Day War.

During the freeze, these Israelis saw themselves as unfairly penalized: Why were they barred from expanding their homes when their Palestinians neighbors were not?

“Stop making us look like monsters,” Yigal Dilmoni, director of the information office for the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella organization, told JTA in a recent interview.

The problem, of course, stems from the ambiguous nature of Israel’s presence in the west bank.

Most nations view the area as illegally occupied by Israel. The Israeli government views it as disputed territory captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. While Israel annexed some territories captured in that war (eastern Jerusalem from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria) and withdrew from others either unilaterally or within a peace deal (the Sinai Peninsula in a deal with Egypt, the Gaza Strip unilaterally), Israel left the west bank in legal limbo.

The Palestinians claim the land as the site of their future state.

In Israel, many on the right believe that Israel should not cede an inch, and many on the left say settlements are a crime and the west bank should be entirely Palestinian. But the majority Israeli view is that most of the west bank will end up as Palestine, while parts of it — large Jewish settlement blocs adjacent to the Green Line — will be annexed to Israel.

In almost all the scenarios, Israel plans to keep the major settlement blocs. Among them are Gush Etzion, a largely religious cluster of towns with some 55,000 people less than 10 miles from Jerusalem; Maale Adumim, a mixed religious-secular city of some 35,000 about five miles east of Jerusalem; and Modiin Illit, a haredi city of some 45,000 located less than two miles inside the west bank, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

More difficult is Ariel, a city of 18,000 located approximately 13 miles inside the west bank. Israel also aims to keep the smaller settlements near the west bank-Israel boundary. This plan encompasses the vast majority of the settler population.

Israeli officials say they have received assurances from U.S. officials that this would be the case — most notably in the April 2004 letter by then-President George W. Bush to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Operating under this assumption, the Israeli government viewed a complete, open-ended settlement freeze as unreasonable: If the major settlement blocs will be Israeli, why stop building within them?

After 10 months of an experimental freeze to see what it would elicit from the Palestinians, their return to the negotiating table was not enough. It was time for the experiment to end.

JTA

 
 
 
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