Open Zion

08.12.13

Two Days Before Talks, Israel Opens Settlement Floodgates

If the de facto Israeli "freeze" on building up settlements in East Jerusalem in the run up to peace talks was implemented silently, then its end—just days before talks are to resume—has been anything but. Yesterday, Israel announced plans for about 1,200 new settlement homes; some 800 for them are slated to be in East Jerusalem, the part of the city the Palestinians want as a capital for their future state. Then today, more news broke on Israel's Channel 10 and in the Times of Israel: the Israeli government reportedly approved an additional 940 settler homes in East Jerusalem.

The scale of the slated expansion in East Jerusalem settlements is tremendous. On Twitter, the Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann pointed out that the more than 1,700 new East Jerusalem settlement units reportedly approved over the past 24 hours represented a nearly 3.5 percentage point jump in the total number of Israeli settlement homes built since Israel took over the eastern part of Jerusalem in 1967's Six Day War.

As for the timing, the satire rag the Onion perhaps captured it best: "Israel Builds New Settlement To Host Palestinian Peace Talks." The Israeli settlement push comes just two days before negotiations were set to resume between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization—the first such talks in five years. The Obama administration has poured tremendous resources to bringing the talks about; bringing them to fruition still seemed a far-off prospect, made only more daunting by the recent news.

The Palestinians already complained to the U.S. about settlement growth continuing in parallel, remarking that Israeli moves suggested Israel "Israel's bad faith and lack of seriousness" in negotiations. "This is a surge," Seidemann told the Washington Post. "This isn’t self-restraint, it can only be interpreted as an effort to humiliate the Palestinians on their way into the negotiating room, and I have doubts as to whether they’ll be able to remain."

Even after the announcements over the past two days, however, the State Department offered nothing more than its usual, tepid reaction. "These announcements do come at a particularly sensitive time, and we have made our serious concerns about this recent announcement known to the government of Israel," said a State spokesperson today, in what has become a rote American response to more Israeli building. "We do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity."

The latest incident is hardly novel: Americans for Peace Now's Lara Friedman put together a list of Israeli moves to shore up or expand settlements—including establishing a "new" settlement altogether in East Jerusalem—over just the past two weeks since the resumption of peace talks was announced. That shorter list complements nicely a longer compendium by Friedman of other settlement announcements at politically inopprotune moments—or opportune ones, if the aim were to crush efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The "freeze" on construction in the Israeli-occupied West Bank never really existed: Friedman, in these pages, aptly described it as "restraint." But East Jerusalem was different: the so-called silent "freeze" was real; no new settlement housing was moved forward since the beginning of the year, even if the issue only made headlines after a radio report spurred indignant responses from right-wing, pro-settlement ministers in the government. But now settlement expansion in both territories—East Jerusalem and the West Bank—appears to be on the uptick. 

The old analogy couldn't be more appropriate: Palestinians have over the years compared talks with the Israelis to negotiating over a pizza while one side—Israel—eats the pie. In this case, it appears that just as the Palestinians arrive at the table, they've caught Israel gobbling down pizza as fast as it can. Even if the Israelis are playing internal politics by making settlement moves, they must realize that so too must Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. His already basement-level legitimacy will only suffer. He can hardly be blamed for leaving the table. Israel, in other words, should stop griping about having no partner for peace when they're wantonly destroying the best shot they have.