Last week's vote in the United Nations General Assembly which afforded "nonmember observer state" status to Palestine, and the Israeli government's subsequent response, has created a storm of controversy that has refocused attention on the stalled Israel-Palestine peace negotiations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, had threatened drastic consequences if Palestine were recognized as a state entity, up to and including a re-invasion of the West Bank.
The actual measures now being taken are drastic enough.
First of all, Israel is now refusing to turn over West Bank tax monies it collects to the Palestinian Authority, saying that these funds will be applied instead to back electricity bills. These are funds that the Palestinian Authority would otherwise use to pay the salaries of its civil servants and for other expenses of running public services.
Secondly, the Netanyahu government announced that it is authorizing the construction of more than 3,000 new units of settlement housing in the E-1 sector between East Jerusalem and the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim.
The effect of actually building these units would be to cut off the rest of the Palestinian West Bank from mostly Arab East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want for their capital. It would practically cut the West Bank in half, making a potential Palestinian state non-viable. The Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Hebron in the south would be completely cut off from Ramallah and Nablus in the north. The West Bank is already so cut up and intersected by Israeli settlements and restricted access roads that many have remarked that it looks more like the Bantustans in apartheid-era South Africa than an actual country.
Netanyahu's move provoked a predictable angry response from the Palestinians. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced it as an effort to sabotage a future Palestinian state.
In fact, the Palestinian move to get recognized as a state entity was in response to the fact that for many years, negotiations toward a two-state solution have been stalled because of the issue of settlements. In the original Oslo accords of 1993 - in which the Palestine Liberation Organization headed by the late Yasser Arafat agreed to peaceful negotiations, which were expected to lead to a two-state solution - the issue of settlements was not nailed down. However, the Israelis continued expansion of settlements on land that would be essential for a future Palestinian state is seen by the Palestinians and many others as an act of bad faith. For the past two years, the Palestinians have suspended negotiations until settlement building stops. But there are already more than 600,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
Numerous other countries have weighed in to protest the reprisal measures announced by Netanyahu. French President Francois Hollande was joined by British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama in sharply condemning the new settlement plans and demanding that they be dropped. France had voted in favor of the resolution on Palestinian statehood, while Britain and Germany had abstained and the U.S. had voted "no." Many other countries also condemned the Israeli move, as did UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the European Union.
One of the issues that had arisen before the vote was whether the Palestinians would now go a step further and try to use the International Court of Justice in the Hague and perhaps also the International Criminal Court to go after the Israeli government, something made possible by their new UN status. Initially, President Abbas had said that he had no intention of doing that unless the Israelis took aggressive new actions. It will now be seen whether Israel's announcement of the new settlement building would be interpreted by the Palestinians as a sufficient provocation to do just that. Palestinian President Abbas said that proceeding with the settlement expansion would constitute a "red line" triggering Palestinian demands for further international action. This would include a call for a Security Council resolution condemning the settlements, something that in the past has been blocked by the U.S. veto. All the permanent member states on the Security Council have condemned the Israeli settlements move, including the United States. Palestinians are now waiting to see if this time, the United States will let a resolution go through and not use the veto.
Next year there are legislative elections in Israel. There is a fluid panorama of different parties splitting and combining, plus several new ones on the scene. Netanyahu's Likud is combining at least for the election with Foreign Minister Lieberman's Homeland Party, which may pull the whole Israeli dynamic to the right on the Palestinian issue.
Photo: Palestinian school children near East Jerusalem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. (Susan Webb/PW)