Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Confusing Obama before Negotiations Even Begin | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The Israeli debate with the US over the issue of settlements is ongoing, and it appears that the US President began experiencing the problems of the Middle Easterners from the first moment that he announced his opposition to settlement construction. The resulting headache from this may have caused the president to reach for the aspirin.

“Stop the construction of settlements” is the warning that Obama issued to the Israelis when he announced his willingness to solve the critical problem of the Middle East.

Obama is officially building upon the traditional position taken up by previous US presidents such as Clinton and Bush however Israel was able to satisfy them [and thereby continued the policy of settlement building]. As a result of this, the pace of land seizures and settlement construction on Palestinian land has doubled.

Now Israel has ensnared Obama in a convoluted debate over the meaning of the terms “stop” and “construction” with regards to the Israeli settlements. Israel said that it would cease constructing new settlements, but that it will continue the development of settlements where construction has already begun. Obama rejected this. Israel then said that it will continue to build upon existing settlements. They received a clarification prohibiting the expansion of existing settlements. Israel answered by asking, what right does Obama have to prevent settlers from building hospitals or schools? Obama answered, the answer is still no. The Israelis returned once again saying it is unreasonable to prevent a settler from building an extension to his house, whether this is an extension to his kitchen or a new garage. Obama informed them that no construction is permitted. However in spite of this the construction of settlements continues. Obama asked the Israelis, why have you not stopped construction after you have pledged to do so. The Israelis answered, you prohibited horizontal construction, not vertical construction.

This is something that has led to more tension, and this tension is further increased by news of the attempts of Israeli police to expel some Palestinian families from their homes in Jerusalem – homes that they have been living in for two decades – as the settlements require extra cement and iron in what is tantamount to a race against time to build houses on the occupied territories [prior to an official agreement prohibiting this].

There was also the news of the Israeli army distributing leaflets to Palestinian shepherds warning them to evacuate their homes as [military] exercises were taking place in the vicinity. Even if the shepherd could have evacuated his family, how could he evacuate a herd of sheep? And to where? When an Israeli human rights organization got involved in the case it discovered that there were no [military] exercises, but rather that this was a ruse to keep the [Palestinian] people away from their land.

Obama cannot treat issues such as this with aspirin, and the larger battle is yet to begin. It would be impossible for peace negotiations to be conducted against the backdrop of such disputes otherwise these talks would last a hundred years before they even begin to deal with the key issues. Obama’s headache is not solely caused by the Israelis, but also by the Palestinian side. Since Obama took office, Hamas has reached an [unofficial] truce with Israel and has turned its attention towards the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Hamas wants to grab the attention of US negotiators, ensuring that it won’t be ignored, even if this means openly fighting with its opponent Palestinian groups in the West Bank and sabotaging the peace project so long as US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, takes notice of the movement, and includes it in the negotiations.

The battle to stop the [Israeli] construction of settlements is a personal battle for Obama, and one that will reveal whether the US president is capable of dealing with the larger issues, such as [Israeli-Palestinian] negotiations over territory, borders, Jerusalem, refugees and disarmament. This will also clarify whether Obama will be able to force the parties to follow through on whatever agreement they make. Everybody is monitoring the battle with regards to the Israeli settlements, and construction is ongoing. So long as settlement building continues under the pretext of expansion and vertical construction, nobody in the region will believe that Obama is capable of handling these weighty issues. The Israelis, and the Arabs, need to see a president who is serious [about the peace process]; a president who means what he says and says what he means. Obama must now show us that he is serious.