New settlement construction: Who is undermining the peace talks?
Two large construction plans for over 1,800 housing units east of the Green Line were approved on Monday and Tuesday. The announcements themselves are problematic, but the timing is astonishing considering Netanyahu is currently in the US and scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week for talks to try and save the peace process with the Palestinians. This raises two scenarios: Either the Israeli bureaucracy is deliberately trying to undermine peace efforts or Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu himself is trying to sabotage the process.
The first scenario is that elements in Israel’s bureaucracy are deliberately trying to embarrass Netanyahu and simultaneously undermine efforts to save the perilous peace talks. In March 2010 when US Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel, the Jerusalem planning commission announced the approval of 1,600 housing units east of the Green Line. The Netanyahu government was embarrassed by the timing of the announcement and publicly declared that it would install additional oversight in order to prevent future embarrassingly ill-timed announcements. However, more announcements of building plans were announced on the eve of almost every meeting between senior Israeli and American officials since.
It is not surprising that some bureaucrats would try to impede progress in the peace talks: It goes against their ideology as well as every one of their institutional and personal interests. A planning commission that deals with areas east of the Green Line would be out of a job should a two-state solution come to fruition, not to mention that the individuals who work on the commissions likely live in the affected areas. If this is the case, that Israeli bureaucrats are trying to influence foreign policy, then the stability of Netanyahu’s coalition is the least of his problems in reaching and eventually implementing a peace deal with the Palestinians. The question of whether settlers in the Israeli army’s upper ranks would stage some sort of rebellion should they ever be ordered to take part in a mass evacuation of West Bank settlements has long been a serious unknown variable. With the building announcements this week, the issue of a government not in control of the institutions it supposedly controls may be more widespread than previously accounted for.
The second scenario is that Netanyahu is either deliberately, or by turning a blind eye, undermining the very peace process he is supposedly leading. This is also not a far-fetched scenario. In the last election, in which Netanyahu was elected, he ran on a platform that opposed the classical two-state solution. His vision of an “economic peace” – among other domestic positions – was one of the major selling points that enticed voters to give his Likud party a strong bloc of seats in the Knesset, enabling him to form a government and become prime minister for the second time. It was only as a result of pressure from the Obama administration – months after the elections – that he eventually changed his position and endorsed the two-state solution in a speech at Bar Ilan University. Because his change of position came under pressure and in contrast to the platform he was elected on, it is far too easy to question the prime minister’s commitment to the very process he is unenthusiastically pursuing.
With the Palestinians and the Arab League refusing to return to talks with Israel until settlement construction is halted once again, announcements of building plans east of the Green Line are a surefire way to scuttle the chances of the two-state solution moving forward. Netanyahu knows this. Whether he is kept in-the-loop about these decisions or is tacitly approving the projects, it is tantamount to deceptively undermining American foreign policy. Earlier this year, video (below) surfaced of Netanyahu from the time of his first term as prime minister explaining to a family of settlers how he planned on derailing the Oslo accords. At the beginning of the video, Netanyahu says, “I know America. America can be easily moved – moved in the right direction.”
Netanyahu believed that he could influence American foreign policy; it is fair to say that he probably believes the same thing today. In the video, he presents a strategy for preventing an already signed-upon agreement (Oslo II) from being implemented. If Netanyahu is actively trying to undermine the process today, his job is even easier. All he has to do is to keep building to guarantee that the talks are not renewed. And for the kicker, he gets to blame the failure on the Palestinians for refusing to negotiation without preconditions – something that used to be the Israeli position.
Without sanctifying the Palestinians side as having pure hearts and intentions, it is clear that somebody on the Israeli side is trying to prevent the current round of American-sponsored peace talks from progressing into actual direct talks. Of the two scenarios presented, Netanyahu explicitly or tacitly approving the settlement construction plans actually is actually the more hopeful scenario. If the elected prime minister is working against peace, he can ostensibly be replaced by the voters should they desire peace. However, if it is the Israeli bureaucracy that is actively undermining the government’s foreign policy behind the prime minister’s back, those same people will be in the same position to do so under another government that may be more enthusiastic about the two-state solution.