The Wednesday cover of the New York Times ran a story on President Obama’s Indonesia response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s ongoing construction of housing for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem. “This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations,” the President said, in this case “getting the message out” but still failing to shed much light on the situation.
Through its unilateral shifts of military personnel and settlers around different parts of the West Bank, it seems to be the aim of the past 3 Israeli governments to put the writing on the Wall–or on the map if you prefer. The construction of new Jewish housing in East Jerusalem appears to be the latest of several incremental steps since the Sharon government to establish the physical plant for a formal Israeli claim over parts of the West Bank.
One of the consequences of the Palestinian Authority‘s apparent inability to control the most-militant factions in the Territories has been the inclination of the Sharon and now the Netanyahu government to take incremental steps towards establishing a de facto settlement in the West Bank which advantages Israel over its 2000 Camp David Summit offers. At Camp David, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak (now Israeli Defense Minister) offered about 73% of the West Bank up-front to Yassir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority; by some time between 2010 and 2025 the new Palestinian state would have received about 91% of the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, and a small part of the Negev Desert region as partial compensation for territory lost to Jewish settlements. This offer was apparently unacceptable to Arafat because of Israel’s retention of East Jerusalem (both a major employment center for Palestinians and the location of the Dome of the Rock, a principal Islamic shrine), the alleged (actually, speculative) maintenance of IDF transport lanes that would cut the West Bank into 3 parts and the inability of both parties to reach an agreement on the number and pace of Palestinian refugees that would be permitted to resettle in Israel proper.
The truth is no one (aside from a few Palestinian militants if the return to violence actually was planned by Arafat) knows exactly “when” the Second Intifada began, or precisely why. There were several violent episodes in September 2000 both shortly before and after not-yet-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, interpreted primarily but not solely by Palestinian activists and their sympathizers as an act of provocation. We cannot be certain whether this long period of violence was an effect or cause of the breakdown of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians; however a longstanding suspicion of many Israelis that Arafat intended to start the Second Intifada after walking away from the Camp David Summit in July 2000 recently received corroboration from a major Hamas leader who claimed that their rival organization participated in the violence at Arafat’s request. The US Mitchell Report on Israeli-Palestinian Violence, published in April 2001, indicated that a coordinated campaign of violence preceded Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount and was not spontaneous, but criticized that visit as an act of provocation in itself. What we do know is that a few Palestinians commenced hostilities in several late-September incidents, and the Israeli response was fast and harsh. By the time the Intifada ended around late 2004 with Arafat’s death about 1,100 Israelis, 5,500 Palestinians and dozens of foreigners had been killed.
The ensuing power vacuum caused Palestinian militant and political leaders to turn inward, jockeying for control of the Palestinian Authority…and the at least $1 billion Arafat sequestered into private accounts accessible only to his wife. In January 2005 Palestinians elected Mahmoud Abbas as President of Palestine; he has generally been a serious negotiator, but Israeli suspension of Palestinian tax revenues to the Palestinian authority after the militant Islamist organization Hamas won 2005 parliamentary elections resulted in a breakdown of Hamas’ ability to govern, and eventually outright civil warfare between Hamas and Fatah. This resulted in Fatah control of the West Bank and Hamas control of Gaza, a split in Palestinian leadership and territory which was accomplished in summer 2007 in the context of a “mini-politicide” of about 600 members of either faction as each took control of the region of the Territories where it was dominant. Talks on reunification of the Palestinian Territories between the 2 groups just broke off without agreement in the past few days.
Prime Minister Sharon put Israel in the international headlines with his August 2005 evacuation of 9,480 settlers from the Palestinian Territories (about 8,500 from Gaza and the remainder from 4 settlements in the northern West Bank). This represented the first and so far, the last effort to remove Jewish settlers among Palestinians in the Territories. While his successor Ehud Olmert had proposed further withdrawals, his political support imploded following the 2006 war with Hezbollah.
Today a unified Israel with a modern and disciplined army confronts a divided and impoverished Palestine; however, the Palestinian faction openly favoring a peace settlement (Fatah) resides in the region where successive Israeli governments have pressed further territorial claims. On April 12, 2006 The Economist had an illuminating cover story on Israel’s measures to make Israeli territorial concessions around East Jerusalem impractical. Both prior presence and the gradual removal of non-Orthodox Jews pursuing incentives to live elsewhere has made East Jerusalem both more-Palestinian and more-Orthodox; meanwhile, West Bank Palestinians who are able to do so have moved into East Jerusalem for its relative accessibility to jobs, convenience of movement, and in all probability, relative peace. Israel’s Separation Fence (realistically a wall), which has effectively blocked suicide bombers’ access to Israel, has also wrecked Palestinians’ commute between Jerusalem and several large West Bank suburbs, impoverishing the East Jerusalem area on both sides.
Both Israel and Fatah are calling for a 2-state solution; Fatah formally claims the 1967 boundary as its border with Israel while Israel has a de facto boundary claim along its West Bank Separation Fence, commenced following the failure of the Camp David Summit. This is the context in which to interpret the eviction of some Palestinians living in East Jerusalem and the weirdly-inconvenient (considering the opening for new talks between Israel and Fatah) timing of the current court ruling calling for the construction of new housing for Israelis there. The rough geographic parameters of 2 states are already visible, but without easy access to and from East Jerusalem the Palestinian state’s internal means of support is not. The portended tragic failure of Israelis and Palestinians to reason out a settlement together isn’t fundamentally religious in its origins at all, but political: Having lost faith in a bargaining partner who thought he could fight for a better deal, 3 successive Israeli governments have physically reinforced their own preferred territorial claim. True, they have been far less diligent about evacuating settlements deep in the West Bank than they have about expanding settlements in the parts they intend to keep, but that’s normal politics, too.