The announcement earlier this week by Israel’s housing minister that approval had been given for the building of 20,000 new homes in Greater Jerusalem and the West Bank was enough to outrage the West and give Palestinians a new excuse for breaking off peace talks. Or at least it was until Prime Minister Netanyahu soon overrode his subordinate and pointed out that the announcement was a meaningless political gesture and signified nothing more than intent since actual building required his support. Not looking for an unnecessary fight with Washington and, even more to the point, unwilling to give the Palestinians any new talking points, the prime minister put the matter on hold. For all intents and purposes, that ends that kerfuffle. But there’s more here than an obvious attempt by some of the more right-wing members of the government to grandstand for their base and to embarrass the PM.
As Netanyahu said, any major housing push by Israel in the territories is a distraction from the more important issue facing his government right now. With the United States still seeking to keep alive a deal with Iran that would make it more likely that the Islamist regime will eventually achieve nuclear capability than not, Israel is better off avoiding gestures that will only divert Congress and other Americans who might speak about it from this policy of appeasement. But as much as Netanyahu was right to put a lid on this discussion, it is still important to point out that even if all of those houses were built, none of them would constitute a genuine obstacle to a peace deal if the Palestinians really wanted one. Moreover, in the 24 hours since Netanyahu spiked the plan, the murder of yet another Israeli by a Palestinian terrorist has refocused the country on the real obstacle to peace: the incitement of hatred by the same Palestinian Authority that is supposed to be Israel’s partner.
The murder of 19-year-old Eden Atias, an off-duty soldier who was asleep on a bus, took place in Afula, a small city well inside the 1967 lines. But he is just the latest of a number of Israeli fatalities that is starting to take on the appearance of a wave of violence. The murderer, who was from the West Bank and had come to Israel supposedly to look for work, told police he was seeking to “avenge” not settlement building but the imprisonment of two relatives by Israel for terrorist activities. As Netanyahu and others in his government rightly pointed out in the aftermath of the killing, the willingness of the Palestinian Authority to broadcast and publish hate directed against Israelis and Jews—such as the recent sermon broadcast on official PA TV in which Mahmoud Abbas’s religious affairs minister claimed that both Yasir Arafat and the Prophet Muhammad were poisoned by Jews—is what is driving the violence and perpetuating the conflict.
Though the international media continues to treat even the possibility of new housing starts as somehow compromising the peace talks, a few facts need to be restated to debunk that notion.
First, almost all of the proposed building would take place in either Greater Jerusalem or the major settlement blocs that even the United States has acknowledged would have to remain inside Israel under any peace deal. Thus the addition of a few more homes there would not prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state in the rest of the West Bank or in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem were the PA ever to agree to such a deal. The building also doesn’t mean new settlements, just more houses in existing ones. Since the Palestinians are not enjoined to freeze building in parts of the West Bank that they are expected to keep in the event of peace, the carrying on about a few more apartments in places Israel will never give up is merely an effort to avoid discussing the real problems preventing an accord.
Nor would, as some have falsely alleged in the past, even the most controversial settlement plans involving the area connecting the Jewish suburb of Maale Adumim to Jerusalem cut off parts of the West Bank from each other or evict any West Bank Palestinians from their current homes.
Indeed, the focus on settlements is merely a way for the Palestinian leadership to try and avoid being put in the same uncomfortable position they were placed in back in 2000, 2001, and 2008 when they rejected Israeli offers of statehood that would have given them almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem. They know Israel has withdrawn settlements in the past and would, if the Palestinians were finally willing to show they were ending the conflict for all time by renouncing the “right” of return for refugees and accepting the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, be willing to do so again.
Instead of doing so, Abbas and his followers look for new rationales for walking out of the talks. Meanwhile, they keep the hatred flowing and the violence continues, something that convinces even more Israelis that they would be insane to duplicate the 2005 Gaza experiment and withdraw completely from the West Bank. If the Palestinians want to change their opinion, they’ll cease the fomenting of hate and stop the violence. Until then, they’ll have to content themselves with posturing about settlements that does nothing to get them closer to a state or the region to peace.