There is no doubt that the settlement issue now figures as the centerpiece of
public attention both locally and internationally, above all the other no less
important negotiating issues, such as Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security and
Undoubtedly, the issue is a relevant political and legal one, of
concern to the international community which has consistently questioned the
legality of Israel’s settlement policies. But there are many other issues of far
greater legal and political import than settlement policy, and one may thus
wonder if this is the real reason for its having become the central and decisive
issue in the negotiating scene.
In fact, the real reason for the
“upgrading” of settlement- building from being merely one among other
agreed-upon negotiating issues is a concerted policy of manipulation by the
Palestinian Authority leadership – Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat and Nabil Sha’ath
– to enhance the international pressure on Israel.
manipulation has been extremely successful, as is borne out by the fact that US
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as the EU
leadership and those same PA leaders, are all voicing one consistent demand – to
renew the freeze on building in the territories.
THE QUESTION arises as
to how such a major manipulation succeeded when there exists no mention in any
of the Israeli-Palestinian agreements of any restriction on building by Israel
in those parts of the territories still under its jurisdiction? Thus, the 1993
Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements (commonly
termed Oslo I) lists “settlements” as a negotiating issue for the permanent
status negotiations, along with Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security
arrangements and cooperation.
In the Agreed Minutes attached to this
document, the Palestinians acknowledged that they will have no jurisdiction in
those areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that are the subject of permanent
In the Civil Affairs Annex to the 1995 Interim
Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (commonly termed Oslo II), Article
27 sets out the agreed terms for planning and zoning and construction powers in
the territories, stressing that powers and responsibilities transferred to the
Palestinians would not cover those areas intended for permanent status
negotiation, which remained within Israel’s jurisdiction. No limitations were
placed on Israel in this field of planning and zoning.
During the course
of the negotiations in 1995, realizing that the draft agreement contained no
requirement to freeze construction, Yasser Arafat requested that the Israeli
team add a “side letter” by which Israel would commit to freezing or restricting
construction during the process of implementation of the agreement and ensuing
negotiations. Several drafts of this “side letter” passed between the
negotiating teams, until Israel indeed agreed to restrict its construction
activities on the basis of a government decision that would be
At this stage the Palestinian leadership decided to cancel its
request for a side letter, preferring no mention in the agreement of any
limitation on construction.
Evidently, at this point, in 1995, the
decision was taken by the Palestinian leadership to artificially turn the issue
of continued construction in settlements into an international issue, and it
commenced a concerted campaign in the international community, international
organizations and media.
This gamble paid off, and continued construction
was manipulatively inflated into the present decisive, separate and major issue
of the present negotiating process. So much so that even the Israeli government
found itself playing along with this manipulation by adopting a unilateral
10-month freeze on construction, without any Palestinian commitment to enter
into negotiations. In so doing, the government gave credence to the artificial
and manipulative upgrading of the settlement issue.
ONE MIGHT view
Israel’s demand for Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state as a parallel
artificial and illusory demand. In fact, no such demand was made during the
earlier stages of negotiation on the various Oslo and other accords. In these
accords, the Palestinians recognized Israel’s rights to exist in peace and
security (Arafat letter to Yitzhak Rabin dated September 9, 1993) and its
legitimate and political rights (preamble to both Oslo I and Oslo II). Nor was
such a demand made in the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.
But it is
patently clear that mutual recognition of sovereignty and political integrity,
as well as the other standard components of a peaceful relationship as set out
in the UN Charter, are tantamount to recognition of whatever religious,
political and other character each respective state entity determines for
Thus, if and when we reach the final stage of signing a peace
accord with the Palestinians, recognition of each side’s religious and political
orientation will be an inherent component.
Hence the present demand for
Palestinian up-front recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would appear to be
no less illusory and unnecessary. Israel does not need Palestinian authorization
of its Jewish orientation, and the mere repetition of the demand is a sign of
weakness as to self-confidence.
Now that we are once again returning to a
direct negotiating mode, after the absurdities of indirect talks over the last
months, it would appear to be incumbent on both leaderships to come down from
the high trees they have climbed, to give up the manipulations and illusions and
to face the practical realities of dealing with the negotiating issues in a
pragmatic, constructive and positive-looking manner.
The writer is a
former Foreign Ministry legal adviser and ambassador to Canada and a former
member of the negotiating team with the Palestinians.
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