Sunday, July 26, 2009

Israeli Settlements: Netanyahu Plays “Deal or No Deal”



New York, New York

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues unjustifiably for the need to continue the construction of West Bank settlements to allow for “natural growth” of settler families, he reminds me of the risk driven guest player in the popular TV show “Deal or No Deal”. In this show, the psyched up player is tempted to lose all his guaranteed winnings at an advanced stage of the game after achieving substantial gains. The player-turned-gambler often loses by overestimating his slim chances to win the full million-dollar deal. Under the influence of passionate support of an interactive audience, the gambler typically rationalizes his refusal to quit on time when his chances are favorable and ends up losing. The player’s false rationale to stay in the game against dominant odds is greed or vanity. The player defends the denial of probability law by claiming to pursue a lofty and altruistic cause: e.g. purchasing a dream house or sending children to college through this Deal.

Back to reality. On July 19, Netanyahu’s cabinet approved the construction of 20 housing units in East Jerusalem. There are already two hundred thousand Israeli Jews living in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and three hundred thousand Jews living in the West Bank. Ten percent of the Israeli Jewish population is already residents in the occupied and forcefully fragmented Palestinian territories. Netanyahu is not satisfied yet with this record of land grab. He dreams of a larger deal, willing to forfeit international support and Israel’s security, everything on the table of negotiation.

Since the 1967 occupation, Israel has spent an estimated one hundred billion dollars to build settlements on Palestinian land. To protect the Israeli settlements on Arab land, an elaborate, immune infrastructure had to be built over the past four decades. In and around settlement communities, there are limitless security structures, roads designated exclusively for settlers, hundreds of checkpoints, luxurious water and other utility systems, intimidating cement barriers, punitive barbed wires and a massive “security” wall that eats up a major part of the West Bank and separates Palestinian villages and cities from one another, and from Israelis communities.

Without pondering the future, successive Israeli governments - of both the Labor and Likud parties - had a major policy in common: extending the settlements and fragmenting Palestinian land. This policy is to weaken the viability of a future Palestinian state in the currently occupied territories, which may be liberated in the future.

Today, Israel is being asked to stop doing what it has been doing for over forty years: to stop building illegally on land Israel does not own. When an illegal political act, which has been tolerated for an extended period of time, suddenly gets declared non-tolerable, as it should have been much earlier, the message is not easily accepted, by the perpetrator of the act. This is what Obama is declaring today as unacceptable and “ must stop”; and this is what Netanyahu is finding hard to comply with.

Ignoring mounting international pressure, the Israeli government continues to refuse to stop building houses on Arab land. The current Prime Minister has been ignoring political pressure and international law, continuing an occupation policy that is no more tenable, or even safe, for Israel’s future security and its image.

President Obama’s staff is using mild and soft power diplomacy with the current hawkish Israeli government. The president is careful not to over spend political capital in dealing with the challenge that the Israel lobby poses for the White House on this issue.

Netanyahu hopes that Israel’s friends in the US congress will not allow Obama to apply full pressure on Tel Aviv. The Israeli Prime Minister is also betting that Obama will be bogged-down in his growing legislative domestic agenda. The current fight for national healthcare reform, by itself, requires more energy and political investment from the President than the Middle East peace process.

With Obama at the helm, the American legislature is being asked this summer to digest two new important ideas, one domestic and one international. The first idea is that national health insurance is a safety valve for capitalism rather than a threat. The second idea is that Israel’s security would be served, rather than hurt, by welcoming a viable Palestinian state.

The Prime Minister of Israel should be thankful for, rather than be grumbling about the fact that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have not asked Israel to dismantle all existing settlements. These settlements are illegal undertakings that constitute a threat to the peace process and form an obvious breach of international law- the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids an occupying power from extending its jurisdiction to the occupied. All that Obama is asking for now from Israel is not to further violate the law in order to discuss the parameters of a solution to the Arab Israeli conflict.

Netanyahu has so far refused to accept an Arab offer to exchange land for peace. The deal is not the full “million-dollar deal” but it is close enough, and for both sides of the conflict. The offer would be a revised Geneva Accord: modified 1967 borders to include a segment of the settlements, a border with a land-compensated, a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, international forces for security, a generous and empowering refugee compensation deal that involves some repatriation to the new state and a shared Jerusalem.

As the threat of the one state solution grows on the Arab street, and among intellectuals who have given up the prospects of a two-state solution, both sides of the Arab Israeli conflict are looking for a voluntary, moderate and pragmatic resolution of the conflict. Will Netanyahu join the moderates or will he stay in the game and press the “No Deal” button?

True friends of Israel are excited about the possibility of striking a deal and they are mindful of the alternative, which could be disastrous for all concerned.

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