Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Unsettling times for Israel-Fatah peace prospects

Let's say you're the State of Israel. The Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are divided between Fatah and Hamas. You have an opportunity to bridge relations between one of them -- Fatah. So what do you do? Antagonize Fatah, of course!
That's what's happening thanks to Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, whose government is eager to build new settlement housing in the West Bank. The West Bank, of course, is where the Fatah government of President Mahmoud Abbas just happens to reside.
"'You can't freeze life' in the settlements, an official quoted Netanyahu as saying, defending his view that existing settlements must expand to accommodate growing families," Reuters reported on Wednesday.
Brilliant, Bibi, just brilliant. Not only does this put a dent in any friendly relations you were hoping to cultivate with Fatah, it also risks the goodwill between Israel and the Obama Administration.
Of course, there are reasons for Netanyahu encouraging the settlers. Israel, after all, is one of the world's most densely populated countries, and its people sure can't expand into the Negev Desert, as the government's motto there seems to have changed from "make the desert bloom" to "make the desert a toxic waste dump." Israeli expansion into the West Bank would potentially increase the population of the country while keeping the religious right happy. And as far as jeopardizing relations with the Obama Administration, the New York Times noted, our 44th president may be realizing his predecessors weren't able to do much about stopping settlements.
Many in the Muslim world are waiting to see what Mr. Obama will do if, as expected, Israel ignores his request on the settlements. When asked about this ... Mr. Obama indicated that he was not yet ready to stipulate an "or else,” despite the fact that several American presidents before him have demanded settlement freezes in Israel and been ignored.
But what about keeping Israel's neighbors happy? The peace treaties of 1979 with Egypt and of 1994 with Jordan brought good results for Israel and neighboring nations (less hostilities, more American aid). While the hope created by the Oslo Accords of 1993 transformed into disillusionment and despair after the Al Aqsa Intifada of 2000, relations between Fatah and Israel seemed to improve recently, given that the governments share an enemy in Hamas.
Israel should curb its desire to create and sustain illegal settlements, and foster goodwill between itself and Fatah. Unfortunately, it looks like Netanyahu will bulldoze not only more land in the West Bank, but also the prospect of peace between Israel and Fatah.

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