Building and talking

Palestinians should hunker down and hammer out an agreement instead of transforming every future building plan into a crisis.

Netanyahu visits newly-approved Rechilim settlement 370 (photo credit: Meir Berachia/Samaria Regional Council)
Netanyahu visits newly-approved Rechilim settlement 370
(photo credit: Meir Berachia/Samaria Regional Council)
Three weeks ago, when Peace Now reported that Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi) was moving ahead with preliminary planning procedures for 24,000 homes beyond the Green Line, the Palestinian negotiating team threatened to quit the current peace talks. According to at least one report chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat actually tendered his resignation to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu quickly took steps to defuse the situation. Netanyahu demanded that Ariel immediately freeze plans for building some 1,200 units in the area between Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem known as E1. He also called on Ariel to “reconsider” plans for building elsewhere, mostly in large settlement blocs.
In response, the Palestinians agreed to continue negotiations.
But controversy over building was sparked over the weekend again after Yediot Aharonot’s Nahum Barnea reported on Friday that the planning process for the 24,000 units was going ahead and that tenders for the projects were going to close this week. The Palestinians reportedly told US Secretary of State John Kerry that they would terminate the negotiations.
And again the Prime Minister’s Office attempted to defuse the situation, notifying The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon that Israel was not in fact going ahead with the planning for 24,000 homes, including the 1,200 units in E1. It seems likely that for a number of reasons – not least of which that Israel still has two batches of 26 Palestinian prisoners to release – the Palestinians will not pull out of the talks just yet.
But it also seems that the Palestinian negotiators are using the building plans as an excuse, if not to back out of talks then to prepare the ground for blaming Israel if, or when, the nine-month period allotted for the negotiations comes to an end and no agreement is reached.
It is clear that the proposed building plans are nothing but an excuse for several reasons. First, these are nothing but preliminary plans. Tens of thousands are issued throughout the year and throughout the country. The vast majority – for various reasons ranging from environmental concerns to the objections of planning bodies – do not come to fruition. For instance, a Construction and Housing Ministry spokesman noted that of 650,000 units throughout the country in various preliminary stages of planning, only some 25,000 would likely be built, and even that amount over a period of four to 20 years.
Also, the vast majority of the planned housing units were slated for inside the large settlement blocs such as Gush Etzion and Ma’aleh Adumim or in east Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Givat Ze’ev, which would most likely remain a part of a Jewish state in any two-state solution as envisioned by the Geneva Initiative, the Clinton parameters and outlines set down during negotiations in 2008 between Abbas and then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. Palestinians would be compensated for these Jewish settlements and neighborhoods with land inside the Green Line.
If the Palestinians truly were interested in stopping construction in areas which they see as a part of a future Palestinian state, the best way to achieve their goal would be to reach an agreement with Israel on borders as quickly as possible, not to walk away from talks.
Of course, it could be -- given the radicalized Palestinian political scene -- that the negotiators have little choice but to protest wildly every time Israel announces it is building beyond the Green Line even if doing so does little to advance Palestinian interests.
Yet there is some hope that against all odds the present talks will actually lead to a substantial breakthrough.
Labor MKs such as opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Omer Barlev who met Sunday with Abbas in Ramallah got the impression he was serious and pragmatic and truly interested in reaching an agreement. It could be they were purposely painting an overly positive picture in order to make Netanyahu look like the intransigent one.
But the fact remains that a majority of both Palestinians and Israelis realize that a negotiated two-state solution is the only option. For Israelis it would ensure that Israel remains both Jewish and democratic. For Palestinians it would end the occupation and provide them with national self-determination. Palestinians should hunker down and hammer out an agreement instead of transforming every future building plan into a crisis.