Arab News (Editorial)
May 4, 2011 - 12:00am

It is Netanyahu who must now choose between illegal settlements and peace

ISRAELI Premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the Fatah-Hamas peace deal was to threaten Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas, saying he needed to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas.

But Netanyahu has got it completely wrong. It is the Israelis who must now choose. And Abbas made their choice starkly clear. Building illegal Jewish settlements or peace. Israelis can no longer continue to exploit Palestinian divisions and Washington’s weakness by continuing to construct unlawfully on Arab land seized in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

The challenge for Netanyahu from Abbas is to demonstrate that Israel really does want peace.

Until the reconciliation with its rival Hamas, the Palestinian Authority was only in a position to talk about peace with Israel. It could never have delivered a peace deal, had one ever been hammered out. And that has been the way that the Israelis liked it.

Now they must think again. Within a year they are likely to be talking to a newly-elected and unified Palestinian government, which is almost certain to have worldwide recognition, very probably from all the EU states and perhaps, it must be hoped, even from the Obama White House.

One of the prerequisites for genuine and successful negotiations — a unified Palestinian delegation — will be in place. And everything will be on the table with the sole exception of the illegal settlements. It is simply not acceptable for the Israelis to claim to talk peace while they continue this wanton provocation in Palestinian lands, stealing property and humiliating and impoverishing whole communities.

As long as Israel continues with the unlawful construction, the Palestinians will not approach the negotiating table. The gauntlet that Abbas has cast down before Netanyahu is a challenge for the Israeli premier to demonstrate his genuine commitment to peace by stopping new settlement activity.

It is surely no concession to agree to stop stealing what does not belong to Israel. The prize for both Palestinians and Israelis is far, far more substantial than the deplorable and gross satisfaction of a bunch of bigoted Zionist settlers, celebrating their “return” to a greater — Eretz Israel.

Netanyahu in fact faces what may prove to be the greatest opportunity of his political career. As Palestinian faction dissolves to be replaced by a broad government of consensus, Israel will have a strong negotiating partner, able to make and carry through the compromises that are essential for a successful deal. It has to be prepared to match that commitment in its own stance.

There can be no more divide and rule of the Palestinians. Israel can no longer duck and dive the reality that only real negotiations will provide a lasting peace for both Palestinians and Israelis. The time for violence is ending. The time for talking, real talking is here.

Nothing of course is going to happen overnight. But Netanyahu cannot ignore the challenge from Abbas, which strikes at the heart of the standoff that has wrecked peace negotiations since the Oslo Accords. Israel simply has to stop the building of illegal settlements. If it does not, then it is clear evidence that it does not want peace.


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