In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, movement in the standoff between the two sides can be as often backward as it is forward. The past couple of weeks have seen moves from both sides that have garnered the attention of the world, but forward progress remains elusive.
Not least among these moves was Israel’s announcement Tuesday that it had approved building 900 additional units in Gilo, a controversial Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, part of the Occupied Territories.
Outrage came from many corners, including the White House, which took a brief break from President Barack Obama’s Asia trip to declare the administration’s "dismay" at the Israeli plan.
"At a time when we are working to re-launch negotiations, these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in a strongly worded statement released Tuesday.
Gibbs went on to condemn other Israeli actions in East Jerusalem that have been effectively changing the facts on the ground.
"The U.S. also objects to other Israeli practices in Jerusalem related to housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. Our position is clear: the status of Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties," the statement said.
This disapproval was echoed by the State Department and U.S. allies, including the British Foreign Office and France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Koucher.
The approval of the new units in Gilo, called a "routine process" by an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, follows an announcement last weekend by the Palestinian Authority that it plans to seek international approval of a Palestinian State through a vote by the U.N.
The move has been labeled unilateral and was strongly opposed by both Israeli and U.S. politicians. Two U.S. senators attending a conference in Jerusalem said that the U.S. would likely veto any such proposal that came before the U.N. Security Council.
"I hope and presume that the United States would veto such a move if it ever came to the Security Council," Sen. Joe Lieberman said during a press conference during the Saban Forum in Jerusalem.
Addressing an audience at the Saban Forum Sunday night, Netanyahu warned that, "There is no substitute for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and any unilateral path will only unravel the framework of agreements between us and will only bring unilateral steps from Israel’s side."
One Israeli official, Environmental Minister Gilad Erdan, indicated in an interview with Israel Radio that such steps might include more annexation of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, according to Reuters. Members of Israel’s Labour Party backed away from such statements.
However, Palestinians insist that the move is not a unilateral one, but instead is seeking re-affirmation of the two-state solution.
In an interview with IPS on Monday, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said, "What we intend to do is to take to the United Nations Security Council a request that the international community re-endorse the two-state solution based on the pre-Jun. 5, 1967 borders. The key are those borders."
The heightened rhetoric between Israelis and Palestinians comes amidst increasing frustrations with the stalled peace process. Just 10 days before he announced the diplomatic push to gain international support for a state, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared that he would not run in the Palestinian Authority elections, scheduled for January 2010.
Last week, in statements made on the anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death, Abbas called for perseverance in the pursuit of an independent Palestinian state and reconciliation with Hamas. He also emphasized that he would not return to negotiations with Israel without a true settlement freeze.
Abbas’s declared intention to step down, and his renewed emphasis on an independent, unified Palestinian state follow key moves, pressed upon him by the U.S., that have harmed Abbas’s credibility with his own people.
The first of these was the September meeting between Abbas, Netanyahu and Obama in New York. Abbas was pressured to attend despite the fact the Israel had refused to implement a settlement freeze, a precondition that Palestinians said must be met before they would return to negotiations.
The second move was Abbas’s decision in early October, made under intense U.S. pressure, to withdraw Palestinian support for a vote in the Geneva-based U.N. Human Right’s Council on the Goldstone Report, the 500-page U.N. document that declares that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes during the intense fighting in Gaza last winter.
A new report from the International Crisis Group called "Palestine: Salvaging Fatah", notes that the Obama administration recognizes that Abbas has taken several blows to his legitimacy and power in recent weeks. Indeed government officials interviewed for the report expressed concern that Abbas might follow through on his threat to not run in the January elections.
If Abbas steps down, the future of Palestinian Authority and of the peace process itself would be uncertain at best, many experts have said.
"Nobody is better for the peace process platform," said Khalil Shikaki before an audience of hundreds at the Middle East Institute’s annual conference last week. Shikaki is the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah and a senior fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.
However, since Netanyahu’s election, the stability that Abbas has delivered has, in essence, meant the maintenance of the status quo, Shikaki said.
Shikaki was not the only one to warn of the dangers imminent if a new approach isn’t found. "The ‘Sell By’ date on Oslo expired in 1999," Daniel Levy told those at the MEI conference. Levy is the director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and a former Israeli peace negotiator.
He congratulated the Obama administration on its early engagement with the Middle East peace process, but said emphatically that 10 months into this administration’s approach to the conflict, "It is time for a course correction."
Indeed the Obama administration seems frustrated by the non-starts in the peace process and also seems to be watching its leverage on the two parties slip away.
"I wish I could stand before you today and point to substantial progress toward our goals, [but] I cannot," William Burn, State Department undersecretary for political affairs, told those at the MEI conference, referring to the administration’s efforts to restart peace talks.
With Tuesday’s approval of the new building in East Jerusalem, Israel also blatantly ignored requests earlier in the week by Obama’s Middle East Peace Envoy George Mitchell to stop the expansion of Gilo, according to Ynetnews.com.
The Palestinian’s bid for U.N. approval also signals that they’ve lost faith in the United States ability to broker negotiations.
The next steps for the United States in seeking a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians seem more unclear than ever.
(Inter Press Service)