Disputes over the settlements has been the main reason behind the diplomatic paralysis of the last three years in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. After taking office, US President Barack Obama was quick to try to restart the peace process by resuming contact between Israel and the Palestinians in May 2009. However the talks collapsed in September 2010 as US negotiators failed to persuade Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition to renew settlement freeze on all occupied territories which was pre-condition of the Palestinian side. As Obama pushes for another attempt to boost the talks, settlement activities are once again on the top of the negotiating table with Israeli cabinet’s approving 1,187 new settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank just three days before the parties meet in Jerusalem. Announcing the second round of talks to be held on August 14 in Jerusalem, US Department of State spokesperson Jen Psaki said, "Our position on settlements has not changed. We do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity and oppose any efforts to legitimize settlement outposts."
Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA), Martin, a strong advocate of two-state solution, pointed out that the settlements were crippling to a two-state solution as many of these additional settlements announced Monday were around Jerusalem.
“Netanyahu is telling the US that he wants to negotiate at the same time he is thumbing his nose at the Sate Department which has long been against continued settlements,” added Martin.
Netanyahu paralzes two-state solution, endangers trust between US-Israel
Martin said, “This is Netanyahu staking out his position not only on settlements but on Israel's position on Jerusalem as well."
Reminding that the US wants peace between the Israelis and Palestinians "for the sake of increasing stability in an increasingly unstable Middle East and to improve the standing of the US in the region", Martin said Netanyahu would overshadow the trust between the US and Israel.
She further said, “Netanyahu needs to want peace with the Palestinians and needs to be willing to be a strong leader and tackle the hard issues even if it means tackling the difficult political constellation that makes up the Israeli electorate. He can do this if he is willing to work with the peace groups in the opposition.”
"US will disengage more"
Upon the question about US position on Israel’s new settlement decision, Martin explained, “Unfortunately, the US does not seem willing to take any really substantive steps to enforce their stand against the building of settlements. What is most likely is that the US will disengage more and that will not be so good for Israel in this unstable moment in the Middle East. But, the US cannot afford to put time into an issue that will not produce a peace agreement. It is not good for US standing in the region and also the US has many other very important issues on which it needs to concentrate.”
Israeli hardliners blamed for settlement push
With the second round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks scheduled for August 14, Israeli cabinet decision to build new Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, while at the same time approving release of first batch of Palestinian prisoners give mixed signals about Israeli position and the course of future talks. While Palestinian side seems frustrated by the move, experts believe that the decision is directed at domestic politics, and do not reflect Israeli position on peace talks.
Three days before the second meeting of the negotiating parties in Jerusalem, Israel's Housing Ministry approved building 1,187 new settlements on the occupied Palestinian territories; 800 in east Jerusalem and 400 in the West Bank. Sunday's announcement came after government's adding more settlements to its "national priority" list- originally aiming diverting funds to poorer communities eligible for special government funding, a week ago.
Palestinian side regarded the latest push for expanding the settlements as an attempt to “sabotage” the renewal of talks. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, reacting the decision, Monday said Israel is forcing Palestine not to come to the table for the peace talks by taking such a decision.
"Israel's announcing a tender to build new settlements sabotages the peace process," Erekat said.
Move directed at domestic politics
While the timing of Israel's pushing for settlement plans- right after the resumption of talks, raised suspicions over Israel's seriousness on the negotiating table, Israeli cabinet Monday approved the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners- among the Palestinian pre-conditions for talks, and the only one that was accepted by the Israelis.
Considering that Benjamin Netanyahu presides over a coalition government that includes many right-wing settlement supporters, the decision is seen as a move directed at appeasing domestic public opinion.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA) Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former Ambassador to the United States and a former chief negotiator with Syria said, “Since Netanyahu's coalition includes also the settlers' party, this is a domestic maneuver.”
Commenting on Tel Aviv's double-edge policy, expert on Israeli-Palestinian issue Professor Lenore G. Martin of Department of Political Science, Emmanuel College said, "It appears Netanyahu is trying to appease the hardliners in his cabinet by continuing with settlements and at the same time he is trying to tell the Palestinians that he is a good negotiating partner by releasing prisoners."
Direct peace talks between Israel and Palestine resumed in Washington in July after a pause of almost three years with the goal of reaching a final status agreement within 9 months, following an aggressive push by Secretary of State John Kerry that included six rounds of shuttle diplomacy in the region.
The parties are expected to meet on August 14, Wednesday in Jerusalem to negotiate tackling the contentious issues of borders, security, the future of Palestinian refugees, water and the future of Jerusalem to reach a two-state solution.
Settlement freeze was a pre-condition for resuming the talks, but as Netanyahu rejected it, Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas agreed to sit at the table in exchange for release of 104 Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences, many for involvement in killing Israelis at four stages during the negotiations.