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Peace recedes as Obama policies harden Palestinian positions

November 18, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments
By Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–Barack Obama was six years old when the Jordanian army opened fire on Jerusalem as its part in the 1967 war. Shortly after the fighting, Israel expanded the city’s boundaries. Four years later it began construction the Gilo neighborhood. Gilo was in the news early in the intifada that began in 2000, when Palestinians bunkered in the nearby city of Beit Jalla fired on apartment houses. Israel built a wall to protect the vulnerable area, proceeded to wreck more havoc in Beit Jalla and the rest of Palestine than the Palestinians could achieve against Israelis. Some 40,000 people are now living in Gilo, construction of new homes and public facilities proceeds as elsewhere in Jerusalem, and planning authorities have recently approved the construction of an additional 900 units.
Also during the intifada, the idea of a wall protecting Israel from Palestinian violence caught on, and the project continues. It is generally close to the 1967 boundaries, but reaches to the east in order to enclose major centers of Jewish population.
None of this has received the blessing of the international community. However, no government has taken any steps stronger than protests at the unilateral expansion of Jerusalem’s boundaries or other Israeli construction in the West Bank.
Possession is nine-tenth of the law. I probably first heard that expression as part of a dispute on a primary school play yard, years before the 1967 war. Believe it or not, it also carries weight in international law. Claims should be bolstered with control in order to win recognition.
Reuters headlines its story on the approval of construction in Gilo with “Israel angers U.S. by approving new West Bank homes.”  A White House statement indicated dismay, and accused Israel of undermining the President’s efforts to resume peace talks with the Palestinians. http://www.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUSTRE5AG2P520091117
Naivete? Childish? Chutzpah?
What is setting back peace talks is not something that has been a reality for 40 years. Israel controls Jerusalem within the borders that it declared. It also has effective control over the areas included within the security barrier. One does not know what would be the decision of the Israeli government if Palestinians ever become serious about negotiating instead of repeating the tired mantra about 1967 borders and the return of refugees. Every once in a while Palestinians indicate that they have been flexible in talks over the course of the most recent decade, but no details about that flexibility have come to the public’s attention. The best guess is that the largely Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and the settlements on the Israeli side of the security barrier are not going to be on the table.
Another major barrier to the peace talks is Gaza, controlled by Hamas and their inflexible rejection of Israel’s legitimacy. There is also unrelenting incitement in Palestinian schools and media, including those of the West Bank, and occasional threats of renewed violence.
No previous American administration has formally accepted the facts established by Israeli construction since 1967. What is notable about the Obama administration is the renewed emphasis of its alleged illegality, and the repeated inclusion of Jerusalem neighborhoods in the condemnation. No surprise that European officials and the Secretary General of United Nations the have joined the American led chorus.

Change there is in the position proclaimed by the Obama White House. Achievement is something else, and the early signs are negative.
If the Obama administration has contributed anything to the peace process, it has hardened the position expressed by Palestinians, provoked the Israeli right to demand more settlement activity on both sides of the security barrier, and has caused dismay among the Israeli center and left.


More important than the loss of confidence in President Obama among the Israel public is the probable loss of confidence among Israeli policymakers. And more pressing than routine construction in Jerusalem is the looming threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. There is no sign that the President’s commitment to engagement has worked any better with the Iranians than with the Palestinians. If Israel decides to take action on its own, it will be unpleasant for many people beyond the initial suffering in Iran and Israel. No doubt that world leaders will blame Israel, but the responsibility will lay no less with Barack Obama.

Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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