With the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” currently mired in the worst impasse of the last 18 years, one might think Western diplomats would reconsider their approach rather than mindlessly adhering to the same failed tactics. But one would be wrong, as Germany’s response to Israel’s latest announcement of new construction makes clear: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said the announcement sent “a devastating message with regard to the current efforts to resume peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians” and urged Israel not to issue the tenders.
Merkel evidently didn’t consider what message she sent via that statement, but in fact, it’s a message far more devastating to “efforts to resume negotiations” than the new housing is. What she effectively said is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should be rewarded for steadfastly refusing to negotiate with Israel by being granted the very construction freeze even he demanded only as a quid pro quo for agreeing to negotiate.
But if refusing to talk leads the West to demand more Israeli concessions in an effort to lure him back to the table, then Abbas has no incentive ever to negotiate. After all, in negotiations, both sides usually have to give something. If by refusing to negotiate, he can instead get the world to extract unilateral concessions from Israel, that is obviously his best move.
Perhaps even more disturbing, however, is that all the new construction is planned for existing Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem or major Jerusalem-area settlements that virtually every peace plan ever proposed has Israel retaining. By treating Israeli construction in these areas as no less problematic than construction in isolated settlements that everyone agrees would be dismantled under any agreement, Merkel feeds the Palestinian fantasy that it really is possible to turn back the clock, because the world will support Palestinian demands for a full Israeli retreat to the 1949 armistice lines.
This is crucial, because contrary to the accepted wisdom that borders are an “easy” issue to resolve, they have proven a major sticking point in every previous round of talks. The most generous Israeli offer to date, in 2008, had Israel keeping about 7 percent of the West Bank in exchange for land swaps. But Palestinians have repeatedly insisted that Israel keep no more than 2 percent of the territory, even with 1:1 territorial swaps. According to leaked negotiating documents known as the Palestine Papers, for instance, they demanded that Israel cede both the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa and the Jerusalem-area settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, with populations of about 20,000 and 36,000, respectively. In short, they insist on throwing tens of thousands of additional Israelis out of their homes, thereby making it much harder for any Israeli leader to sign a deal.
Thus, if Western leaders really wanted to advance the peace process, they should instead be striving to get Abbas to accept that these areas are never going to
be Palestinian. And supporting continued Israeli construction there would be one of the best ways to do so.
But if the West still hasn’t figured that out after 18 years, I wouldn’t hold my breath.