To be a peace broker, U.S. must reasses its position on settlements

The appointment of Senator John Kerry as the next U.S. Secretary of State could represent a new opportunity for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. But for efforts to be successful, the U.S. will have to reconsider its message that settlement construction is a matter of negotiation.

By Lorenzo Kamel

The day after the UN voted to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state, the Israeli government approved construction of approximately 3,000 new residential units in the occupied territories, a decision that was met with strong opposition by various European leaders. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on the contrary, delivered a speech at the Saban Center in Washington on Friday, November 30, in which she stated that “America and Israel are in it together,” without making any reference to the proliferation of settlements or the occupation. Instead, she praised in three different passages the “settlement freeze” implemented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December 2009.

Clinton defined the “freeze” as one of the clearest opportunities for peace created in recent history. The freeze, it should be noted, did not include East Jerusalem nor a freeze on construction of public buildings, such as schools and synagogues, and applied only to new construction, meaning that construction on those already underway continued, with the result that in the weeks preceding the moratorium a boom of new buildings was registered. Moreover, in the weeks following September 2010, the day in which the moratorium ended, 1,650 new houses were built, slightly less than the total amount built in all of 2009.

The position of the Obama administration is that the two parties involved must initiate direct negotiations “without preconditions.” This was also the reason given by the United States in February 2011 to justify their veto against a resolution of the UN Security Council which held the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be “illegal.” Fourteen out of fifteen members of the Security Council voted in favor of that resolution. The veto was justified by Ambassador Rice on the grounds that “this resolution risks hardening the positions of both sides.”

From a symbolic point of view, the U.S. veto had serious consequences. The message it sends is that the issue of settlements and the exploitation of the natural resources (water, stone, gravel) in Palestinian territory are topics of negotiation. Thus, the Palestinians have to negotiate a halt to the funding and incentives provided for the construction of new outposts and settlements in the context of the peace process.

This position is contrary to the wishes of a vast majority of the international community, as well as to the guidelines indicated by numerous international bodies. Furthermore, the Obama administration’s approach is counterproductive in that it uses a double standard of action. While Washington did not join the rest of the members of the Security Council in defining the unilateral acts represented by settlement construction as illegal, it did raise the accusation of unilateralism against PA President Mahmoud Abbas after his recent appeal to the General Assembly of the United Nations. In doing so, the U.S. did not vote against “Israeli unilateralism”, while they did vote against “Palestinian unilateralism.”

The refusal to officially define the construction of settlements as “illegal” may be connected to a misunderstanding in relation to the definition of occupied territory itself. The official position of the Israeli authorities as well as the implicit (sometimes explicit) standpoint of many U.S. politicians, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is that the West Bank should be considered “disputed territory.” No state in the world, however, recognizes Israel beyond the 1967 lines. Moreover the legal definition of the term “occupation” is applied to a territory in which a foreign military force is able to exercise complete or partial military control, as well as civil-administrative control over infrastructures and the daily life of local residents.

The Israeli High Court of Justice itself established that the application of the regulations on the matter of occupation depends on the effective military control exercised from outside the nation’s borders, and not from previous sovereignty over the territory of a specific state. Therefore, the fact that the West Bank was occupied by Jordan until 1967 – an occupation which was opposed by the local population at the time, most of all by Fatah militants, to the point that King Hussein felt obliged to impose martial law – does not justify the use of the expression “disputed territories.”

It is possible that following the upcoming Israeli elections, the Obama administration will begin to partially reconsider its current “benign neglect approach” toward Israel and attempt to launch a dialogue between the parties. In this respect, the appointment of Senator John Kerry as the next U.S. Secretary of State could represent – despite his past stance on the issue – a new opportunity.

In order for their efforts to be successful, the U.S. will have to reconsider its implicit message that the construction of new outposts and settlements are matters of negotiation. Before doing this, it must acknowledge that security guarantees for Israel will be effective only if conditioned by concrete political, economic and semantic stances regarding all issues of concern, far and foremost the ones addressed at the Security Council and at the UNGA. Such a realization will not lead ipso facto to a solution to the long-standing problems afflicting Israelis and Palestinians. It will, however, represent an important step in that direction.

Lorenzo Kamel is currently a Visiting Fellow at ‘Ain Shams University, Cairo. He holds an MA in Israeli Society and Politics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an MA in Philosophy from La Sapienza University of Rome, and is presently completing a PhD in History at Bologna University. He is the author of many academic articles and two books.