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Settling for … Settlements?

by NADIA HIJAB

The Arabs have a saying for someone who’s not getting anywhere: “He’s managed to explain, after considerable strain, that water is water.” And so it is with US envoy George Mitchell: After considerable effort he’s apparently settled for a settlement freeze that involves more settlements.

A freeze turns out to have been a bad idea from the start, and no one understood just how bad it was better than Israeli attorney Michael Sfard, who has been suing the Israeli state over settlements for months. “The idea of a settlement freeze was created by people who don’t understand settlements,” Sfard says because the very raison d’être of settlements is “growth and enlarging the scope of territorial domination.”

Anyone who knows the history understands that “redeeming” the land has been at the heart of the Israeli enterprise from Day One. Just ask any Palestinian.

Sfard foresaw the mess the Obama Administration finds itself in today as it seeks to bring about a two-state solution. Speaking at an event at the Washington DC-based New America Foundation back in mid-July, he explained that any “freeze” would be undermined in two ways: through planning of settlement construction, and through settler violence.

In fulfilment of Sfard’s prediction, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just had his construction plans approved by the Israeli cabinet in advance of any announcement of a settlement freeze he may make with US envoy George Mitchell later this week, or at the United Nations General Assembly later this month. This ‘freeze’ would exclude 2,500 units under construction in East Jerusalem — and it will be temporary, if press reports are to be believed.

Who would have thought that we might one day regret the passing of Condi & Co.? After all, no one had great expectations of the Bush Administration to begin with, and certainly not after the serial devastation of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza. Hardly anyone took Condoleezza Rice’s multiple trips to the region seriously, and the Annapolis process was seen as no more than the froth on a badly brewed cappuccino.

But the people of the region have had expectations of Obama and Mitchell, whose credibility has been dented by the months Mitchell has spent patting the Israelis into a comfortable settlement posture and squeezing the Arabs for gestures of normalization.

About the only thing that can still be said for the two-state solution is that it might save a little bit of the land of Palestine for the Palestinians. If the Obama Administration can’t convince its closest ally and largest aid recipient to freeze, let alone dismantle, its settlements then what’s the point?

Even former president Jimmy Carter has written in an Op Ed in The Washington Post that a one state solution now seems a more “likely alternative to the present debacle.”

Nonetheless, there are a few rays of hope in an otherwise gloomy landscape. One is the work of Michael Sfard himself and of Yesh Din, the group he serves as legal counsel. Yesh Din is using hitherto untapped information sources to sue the state over Israel’s illegal settlement activity. It also monitors settler violence as part of a project to protect the Palestinians living under occupation.

Sfard’s visit to Washington DC — during which he visited the Obama administration and Congressional offices — is part of a new trend of Israeli human rights organizations speaking directly to the American policy community. Sfard’s trip was sponsored by the Carter Center, whose staff realized that Israeli human rights groups were focusing their outreach on Europe because they lacked the resources to visit America.

The other hopeful trend remains the work of the Palestinian civil society, whose boycott call against Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights bears new fruit almost every day. Most recently Jane Fonda, Naomi Klein, Alice Walker, and Danny Glover joined over 50 artists to protest the Toronto International Film Festival spotlight on the city of Tel Aviv. They are not against showing Israeli films but rather are against the staging of “a propaganda campaign on behalf of … an apartheid regime.”

And then there is the Norwegian pension fund decision to divest from the Israeli company Elbit Systems for its involvement in construction on occupied Palestinian land. “We do not wish to fund companies that so directly contribute to violations of international humanitarian law,” explained Finance Minister Kristin Halvorsen.

If only Obama would hearken to those Nordic words. But perhaps it is premature to mourn his administration’s foray into the peace process. The tight-lipped Mitchell may yet have something up his sleeve. Otherwise, come back, Condi, at least we knew where we were.

NADIA HIJAB is an independent analyst and a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.

 

 

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