Sadie Goldman With Jason Proetorius And Ipf Staff
Israel Policy Forum (Analysis)
December 21, 2007 - 3:26pm

On the heels of the first meeting of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating team, Israel announced its approval of the construction of 307 new homes in Har Homa, a settlement south of East Jerusalem. The announcement produced strong and negative responses from the European Union, the United Nations, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, all of whom expressed the concern that Israel’s action was contrary to its Roadmap obligations to freeze settlement construction, as confirmed in the agreements reached at Annapolis.

President Mahmoud Abbas, who loses credibility among Palestinians every time a settlement is expanded, said that building in Har Homa “undermines the Palestinian public's confidence in the peace process. . . .and could jeopardize the resumption of the talks.”

Israeli leaders reject this argument, asserting that Har Homa is within Jerusalem’s post-’67 municipal boundaries and is, therefore, not a part of the West Bank, where settlement construction is forbidden by the Roadmap.

Har Homa has long been a point of contention between Israelis and Palestinians and, should negotiations falter because of it, it won’t be the first time.

The first time was in 1997, when Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu approved the construction of the original 6,500 housing units in Har Homa.

As Akiva Eldar explained in Haaretz on December 10, that move came just weeks after Netanyahu signed the American-brokered Hebron agreement, which negotiated Israeli withdrawal from that city, and while Israel was engaging in permanent-status negotiations with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. The December announcement threw a monkey wrench in the negotiations and momentum toward an agreement was lost along with trust.

Olmert may now be seeking to assuage domestic opposition to some of their policies just as Netanyahu did in 1997. But while past experience can be instructive, the Har Homa controversy is set in a new context now—the Roadmap context—and, therefore, raises issues about Roadmap implementation in general.

Phase 1 of the Roadmap calls on Israel to freeze all of its settlement activity as “consistent with the Mitchell Report,” which all sides accept. There is, however, no agreement on what a settlement freeze actually means, and whether or not it includes the areas within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem.  

Like the Roadmap, the Mitchell Report (the 2001 report by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell on the post-Camp David outbreak of violence), calls for a freeze of “the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.” However, neither document details whether the question of "natural growth" includes the fate of settlements that fall west of the security barrier, or explicitly states whether the Jerusalem environs are included in the injunction.  

Reuters correspondent Adam Entous writes that Israeli officials view a settlement freeze as a commitment not to build new settlements, not to confiscate additional Palestinian land for settlement use, and not to provide economic incentives for more Israelis to move to settlements. They don’t see the Har Homa expansion as particularly significant pointing to the fact that Abbas and Olmert are due to meet for their biweekly meeting soon despite the brouhaha. (Some Israelis point out that, should Har Homa wind up in Palestinian territory following final status negotiations, it would, of course, be evacuated regardless of any expansion).

But Har Homa is not a trivial issue, if only because it touches on several final status issues at a time when Israelis and Palestinians haven’t even been able to agree on even one! 

The Jerusalem connection is obvious.  As for the West Bank in general, Menahem Klein, a political scientist from Israel’s Bar Ilan University, points out that Har Homa was built specifically to  fill the vacant area between south Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the West Bank. Building in Har Homa, he said in the Associated Press on December 18, was “an attempt to disconnect Arab Jerusalem from its West Bank hinterland.”

The Har Homa issue is considerably larger than the one settlement.

Ostensibly, the negotiating committees set up at Annapolis are meant to address and resolve these issues. But proceeding in the measured and almost lackadaisical style of the past seven years will likely lead nowhere. That is why international involvement is needed, not only to monitor progress, but also to mediate disputes.

The joint statement read by President Bush at Annapolis named the United States as the monitor and judge of Roadmap fulfillment. Secretary Rice, furthermore, publicly declared that construction in Har Homa was an obstacle in the path of peace, and stated that she expressed this concern to the Israeli government as well.

It is doubtful, however, whether this is enough without an effective monitoring mechanism. The United States did name a former NATO commander, General James Jones, to serve as a security envoy and mediate between the negotiating parties. However, as he arrived in Jerusalem only yesterday, his mandate is still unclear: will it only cover particular security issues or will it enable him to bring the two sides to agreement on what the Roadmap expects from them, and to work on its fulfillment?      

Certainly, nothing can replace Israeli-Palestinian coordination. And construction at Har Homa is but one of a myriad of, at best emotional, and at worst, deal-killing issues. As the Bob Dylan song goes, there’s “a lot of water under the bridge, a lot of other stuff too.”

International and especially U.S. involvement and intervention is needed to assure that the settlements freeze issue is addressed to the satisfaction, more or less, of both sides and that all that “other stuff too” is effectively handled. Any judgments or penalties that the United States would impose for failure to implement the Roadmap are surely not as bad as the consequences of a failed process.


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