Israel Builds Settlements and Wants Talks

JERUSALEM — Days after his halfhearted conciliatory U.N. appearance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had already approved the construction of 1,100 flats in occupied East Jerusalem. Yet on Sunday, he threw his support behind the new Mideast Quartet’s peace plan with the Palestinians.

“Israel is welcoming the Quartet’s call for direct negotiations without preconditions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement. The favorable response came at the end of two meetings of the most influential cabinet ministers of the far-right coalition under Netanyahu.

“Israel calls on the PA [Palestinian Authority] to follow suit and to immediately join direct negotiations,” the statement added.

A fortnight ago, in a last-ditch effort to try to harmonize the Palestinian unilateral statehood bid at the world’s body with bilateral peace talks, the Mideast Quartet for Peace (U.N., U.S., EU, and Russia) issued a new peace initiative for Israel and the PA.

The new plan calls for the parties to resume direct peace talks within a month, to present their proposals for permanent borders and security arrangements within three months, and to reach a final agreement within a time frame “not longer than the end of 2012.”

Yet the approval of the new construction scheme in the Jewish Gilo neighborhood-settlement creates doubts about the stated willingness of the Israeli government to start serious talks with the Palestinians.

From an outsider’s view, Netanyahu seems to have, once again, overplayed his settlement hand. Though the Quartet statement doesn’t mention a freeze in settlement building as precondition for talks, it demands that the parties pledge to refrain from “provocative actions.”

The latest settlement-building approval brings to mind a similar decision. In March 2010, the construction of 1,400 apartments in another East Jerusalem neighborhood settlement was adopted during a visit to Israel by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, considered a supporter of Israel. The embarrassing situation led to a much-publicized crisis of confidence between President Barack Obama and the Israeli leader.

This time too, Netanyahu was personally reprimanded — by Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israel’s staunchest ally in Europe, who let it be known to the German media on Friday that she was “furious” with Netanyahu and that she “doesn’t believe a word [he] says.”

She told Netanyahu, “I cannot understand how just a few days after the Quartet statement, you approve 1,100 new housing units,” the liberal daily Haaretz quoted German media reports as saying.

Due to the troubled relations between the PA and the U.S. in the wake of Obama’s pro-Israel address at the General Assembly, Germany became the preferred channel for relaying Israeli messages to the Palestinians and for trying to exert pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to negotiate with Israel.

That’s what Merkel reportedly did. She called Abbas. But when she inquired what it would take for him to decide to resume talks with Israel, Abbas urged her to ask Netanyahu to commit to a three-month settlement freeze, the time frame the Quartet has set for talks on borders and security to take off.

“I don’t need him to say so publicly, I need him not to embarrass us,” Abbas is said to have told Merkel. According to Haaretz, Netanyahu didn’t bother to respond to the Palestinian proposal. Instead, both Abbas and Merkel learned that the Gilo construction scheme had taken off.

“Our ties with the German government and Chancellor Merkel are good and close,” read another Netanyahu statement, also released on Sunday. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that Merkel was the one who leaked excerpts of the harsh phone conversation, the announcement went on to criticize the Israeli media for distorting the facts.

“Just as the media was quick to report on a diplomatic crisis with the U.S. — and then it turned out from the president that the ties are stronger than ever — this time it also turns out that Israeli-German ties continue to be friendly just as they were,” the statement read.

Haaretz retorted by noting that Merkel was apparently “so incensed at Netanyahu” that she decided to break the low media profile she’s been keeping in her relations with the Israeli premier. Merkel’s prudence is understandable. In February, it was divulged that she’d chided Netanyahu in a similar fashion for failing to take “a single step to advance peace.”

But “what you see from there is not what you see from here,” says a popular Israeli refrain.

Domestically, Netanyahu is riding a wave of support for his diplomatic approach. His reaction to the German admonishment — he does “not view Israeli neighborhoods as [illegal] settlements” — is shared by most Israelis.

No wonder. They were warned of the perils of an anti-Israel “tsunami” at the U.N. and of a Palestinian uprising that would engulf the occupied West Bank. Now that it’s become clear that “doomsday” hasn’t happened, and that it’s not certain at all that Abbas will get the nine-vote threshold at the Security Council — not to mention Obama’s unprecedented show of support to Israel and the guarantee of a U.S. veto in any case — Israeli Jews can now focus on their more immediate, and rosier, High Holidays season.

The PA has still to approve the Quartet plan. In absence of a settlement freeze, Abbas will surely try to gain time and pursue his statehood bid at the Security Council in order to try to resume negotiations from a position of strength.

On the other hand, these officials have made plain, albeit in private, that they have their own doubts about the feasibility of reaching an agreement within six months with the PA on borders — that is, on territory that would incorporate inside Israel not only settlements blocks in the West Bank, but also Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

(Inter Press Service)