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A Settlement Freeze Makes Serious Talks Less Likely

Jennifer listed several good reasons to dislike Barack Obama’s latest proposal for a settlement freeze. Here’s one more: it makes serious final-status negotiations even less likely.

To see why, consider last week’s astonishing editorial in the Kuwaiti daily Arab Times. In it, editor-in-chief Ahmed Al-Jarallah urged Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to imitate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat “and start unconditional negotiations” with Israel.

It’s a remarkable piece in many respects: its clear-eyed recognition that the Arab world exploits the Palestinians rather than helping them (“the slogan traders in Iran, Lebanon and Syria … [are] using these poor people as fighting tools”); its candid acknowledgement that Palestinians have blown previous opportunities, like the autonomy plan mandated by the 1978 peace treaty with Egypt (“they should have taken this opportunity and built on it”); and its call for unconditional negotiations, defying the Arab consensus, to avoid missing another opportunity (Sadat, he noted, regained his land by so doing, while if talks fail, that would at least “cause international embarrassment for Israel”). No Western leader has said anything half so honest or courageous.

But the minute Al-Jarallah explains why he deems this necessary, it’s obvious why neither Abbas nor the West discerns the same necessity: Palestinians, he said, must act, because Israeli settlement construction means “the longer the waiting period, the lesser the space” for the Palestinian state-to-be.

In reality, as both Abbas and Western leaders know, refusing to make a deal has proven a surefire way for Palestinians to increase the amount of land on offer. Four decades ago, Israel’s left proposed the Allon Plan, under which Israel would cede 70 percent of the territories. By 2000, Ehud Barak was offering 88 percent. The Clinton plan upped the figure to about 94 percent, and in 2008, Ehud Olmert offered almost 100 percent (after territorial swaps). Each time the Palestinians refused an offer, either Jerusalem or Washington sweetened the deal in the hopes of finally getting them to say yes.

There aren’t many territorial sweeteners left to add, but plenty of concessions remain available on other issues. And there’s no risk of losing the territorial gains because no offer, once made, has ever been taken off the table: Olmert’s offer, for instance, is now viewed by the West as the starting point for new talks, and Israel faces enormous pressure to accept that dictate.

Abbas thus has every incentive to keep saying no: he won’t lose any concession already pocketed, and he’ll probably gain new ones.

Therefore, if the West really wants a deal, it must ensure that saying no does have consequences: that far from netting the Palestinians additional gains, it will endanger those already achieved. In other words, it needs to make them think time is running out for a viable deal. And there’s only one way to do that — by settlement construction massive enough to threaten to make additional settlements too big to be evacuated.

By instead demanding a settlement freeze, Obama ensures the Palestinians can drag their feet with no negative consequences because nothing will change on the ground. So nobody should be surprised if that’s exactly what they do.



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