George Hishmeh
The Middle East Times
June 19, 2008 - 2:45pm

One could hardly believe upon reading or hearing the statement by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after her talks with Israeli leaders last Sunday when she "pressed" them to halt settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, two Israeli-occupied areas where the Palestinians hope to establish their independent state along with the Gaza Strip.

She spoke to reporters during her sixth trip to the region this year and which included a meeting in nearby Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who had described Israeli settlement expansion as the "biggest obstacle" they are facing in their so far inconclusive Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

The peace talks were launched last November in Annapolis, Maryland, at an international meeting attended by representatives from some 50 countries.

"It's important to have an atmosphere of trust and confidence," she declared at a press briefing. "I do believe, and the United States believes, that the [Israeli] actions and the announcements that are taking place are indeed having a negative effect on the atmosphere for the negotiations – and that is not what we want."

Despite her unprecedented public rebuke, Rice admitted she failed to win any concessions – "I haven't heard one" – from the Israelis as she pursued the George W. Bush administration's target of identifying the "contours" of a Palestinian-Israeli peace pact. This should not actually come as a surprise to the secretary because she ought to be aware, as the Arab saying goes, "the camel can't see the [ugly] hump on his back."

After all, her verbal whiplashing comes a few days after the pandering that recently took place at the pro-Israel lobby conference in Washington, D.C. by the presumptive Democratic and Republican presidential nominees and which, in turn, followed President Bush's lovefest at the Knesset where he embraced Israel like no other American leader. What is more disappointing is that her statement failed to signal any serious American consequence should Israel continue to ignore the American reprimand.

Israel has been all along flouting its commitment to the 2003 road map, which banned any Israeli settlement activity. And Rice has throughout this period refrained from voicing her disapproval of the Israeli violations. Without showing any regard to the visiting secretary of state, the Israeli government simultaneously announced plans to build 1,300 more homes in East Jerusalem. All this, did not merit front page treatment by some of the leading American newspapers.

Speaking at The Palestine Center in Washington, the former Palestinian information minister, Mustafa Barghouti, underlined that "since Annapolis, the number and the rate at which settlement expansion is going on is much bigger, much faster and much more dangerous than at anytime before."

He went on: "The rate at which settlements would expand is 20 times more than before Annapolis. Just before the most recent visit of Rice ... Israel announced the creation of 7,974 new apartments or units in East Jerusalem ... [While] between 2002 and 2006 only 1,600 units were built. That means since Annapolis they are building six times more than what was built in four years."

In Barghouti's view, "Annapolis was nothing but an effort to defuse ... pressure that was rising in Europe and elsewhere to convene an international peace conference and deal with the conflict on the basis of international law [and] a process that gave Israel the time it needed to continue settlement building and creating this apartheid system."

On the other hand, Barghouti had some good tidings for his audience. "I have never received receptiveness like this [on Capitol Hill]. I am not promising much change, but people are listening. People are beginning to see that the king is naked and the level of discrimination that Israeli is creating in the occupied territories, the unbelievable images of this horrible wall that is being built cannot be hidden. What we need is just more systematic efforts, more unified efforts, more scientific, reasonable, rational language to advocate the Palestinian cause."

A golden opportunity may come up after U.S. Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, visits Iraq and Afghanistan before the November election, as he has just promised. This would be fortuitous for the Palestinians to invite him to see their besieged homeland, something he, Bush and U.S. Senator John. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, have not done although they all had traveled to Israel in the past.


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