Joshua Mitnick
The Christian Science Monitor
August 25, 2010 - 12:00am

For more than a year, the Palestinians insisted on an Israeli settlement freeze as a precondition to entering direct talks with Israel. But recently they dropped their demand, paving the way for the first direct peace talks with the Israelis since early 2009.

Or did they?

While Palestinian leaders say they’ll show up for the talks, slated to start next week in Washington, they also insist they'll withdraw if Israel doesn’t extend a settlement expansion moratorium that expires on Sept. 26. Since no one expects substantial progress in a 60-year-old conflict to be made in a little under a month, and restarting talks only to have them break down immediately would probably do more harm than good, it's reasonable to wonder what's going on here.

It appears that the Palestinians have made a tactical switch to shift the claims of being the "obstructionist" party from themselves to the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The burden will now be on Mr. Netanyahu to extend the freeze in order to keep talks that US President Barack Obama has staked considerable prestige on inching forward.

But the Israeli prime minister is in a bind because he promised right wing allies that he would renew building, so a formal declaration of a new or extended freeze seems unlikely. That does not mean, however, that a surge of new settlement construction is coming at the end of September. Palestinian and Israeli analysts say that Israel could informally pressure settler groups to restrain new construction, or perhaps use the permitting process to do so, in effect meeting the Palestinians half-way.

"It's not about settlements, it’s about what type of good will the sides are [bringing] to the talks,’’ says Mohammed Dajani, a political science professor at Al Quds University. "It’s about what is your goal in entering negotiations: is it to achieve peace, to stall, to please international powers, or win public relations points?’’

While Palestinian officials like lead negotiator Saeb Erekat insist that all new construction is unacceptable, some degree of construction is likely to be tolerated. After all, the Israeli group Peace Now said there were 481 housing starts in the West Bank over the first eight months of the "freeze," though that was far fewer than the 3,500 new units that settler groups say they were adding before the freeze.

That was enough for the Palestinians to agree to indirect negotiations. Going forward, Netanyahu’s moderate supporters have suggested that Israel seek a compromise under which it would be allowed to continue building in larger "blocs" of settlements adjacent to Israel proper, while the building moratorium would remain in force in communities deep in the West Bank.

Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian government spokesman, said that the Palestinians will be focusing on Israeli actions – suggesting that a declaration on a moratorium extention may not be crucial.

The main criteria is a practical one,’’ he says. "If [Netanyahu] stops the settlement activities, that is the main indicator he is serious. If he continues to grab the land and expand settlements then he is not serious about ending the occupation.’’

In the long run, talks involving the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas will not, on their own, be sufficient to build a lasting piece. The Islamist Palestinian group Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, opposes the talks, and allies of Mr. Abbas say ongoing settlement expansion erodes Palestinian support for negotiations and shifts more of the public to Hamas' uncompromising position.

But despite public complaints that Israel is creating facts on the ground, Palestinian negotiators are also mindful that those facts are not necessarily permanent, says Mr. Dajani. Israel dismantled settlements in the Sinai peninsula following its peace treaty with Egypt, and after deciding on a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

Some also expect a quiet understanding from the Palestinians to tolerate building in established Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, says Gershon Baskin, the co-director of the Israel Palestinian Center for Research and Information.

To be sure, some are less hopeful. Yasser Abed Raboo, who heads the Palestinian broadcast authority and is a government spokesman, insists that as long as there is no agreement on the borders of a future Palestinian state, President Abbas won’t agree to a selective freeze.

"When we decide what will be the swap of land, and what the borders will be, then let them build," Mr. Abed Raboo says. "But now they are deciding what will be part of the land swap unilaterally."

He argues that just as Israel wouldn’t tolerate violence amid talks, the Palestinians cannot tolerate building during the talks, however minor.

Mr. Abed Raboo says the Palestinians expect the building pipeline to be cut off. "There should be no more units under construction until we finalize this agreement. Otherwise this is a deception."


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