Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Washington Post’s False Equivalence On Israeli West Bank Settlements

Over the past few weeks, the Israeli government has received an enormous amount of criticism for its ramp-up of settlement projects in retaliation for the Palestinians’ successful effort to upgrade their status at the United Nations. It’s apparently gotten so serious that, at an Israeli Foreign Ministry conference last week, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.N. Ron Prosor reportedly received a round of applause from his colleagues when he questioned the head of Israel’s National Security Council over the policy.

So it was a bit odd to read the Washington Post’s editorial today suggesting that criticism of the settlements is as much of a problem as the settlements themselves:

The criticism is appropriate, in the sense that such unilateral action by Israel, like the unilateral Palestinian initiative to seek statehood recognition in November from the U.N. General Assembly, serves to complicate the negotiations that are the only realistic route to a Middle East peace. But the reaction is also counterproductive because it reinforces two mistaken but widely held notions: that the settlements are the principal obstacle to a deal and that further construction will make a Palestinian state impossible. [...]
But it is also harmful, because it puts pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to make a “freeze” on the construction a condition for beginning peace talks. Mr. Abbas had hinted that he would finally drop that demand, which has prevented negotiations for most of the past four years, after the General Assembly’s statehood vote. If Security Council members are really interested in progress toward Palestinian statehood, they will press Mr. Abbas to stop using settlements as an excuse for intransigence — and cool their own overheated rhetoric.
There are a couple of seriously flawed moral equivalences on display here. First, let’s recognize that, the practical impact of the settlements on negotiations aside, there’s a strong international consensus that they are illegal. While people can disagree over the wisdom of Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to seek an upgrade in the Palestinians’ status at the U.N., there’s really no comparison between the Palestinians “unilaterally” seeking relief through international bodies and the Israelis unilaterally violating their commitments to those bodies.

Second, it’s quite true that settlements are not the only obstacle on the road to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Political divisions among Palestinians are also a serious problem. But it’s important to understand how continued settlement growth completely undermines moderate Palestinian leaders and empowers extremists who insist that the non-violent path is a dead end. “Each time he [Abbas] goes to the negotiating table, or appears to go to the negotiating table, he gets weaker,” Palestinian scholar Khaled Elgindy explained recently, “because he’s participating in a process that the vast majority of Palestinians consider to be a sham, they consider it to be a cover for ongoing settlement activity… [and] a way to perpetuate this occupation.” It shouldn’t be too hard to grasp why Abbas feels that he can’t re-enter negotiations in the absence of a settlement freeze, and the inability of some to do so speaks to an ongoing problem in U.S. media, wherein the limiting effects of Israeli domestic politics are granted enormous deference, while Palestinian domestic politics are barely recognized as existing at all.

As for the idea that criticizing settlements emboldens the Palestinians to hold out for a settlement freeze, I’d argue that the reverse is true: Downplaying the negative impact of settlements emboldens the Israelis to keep building them. (The Jerusalem Post has already posted its own editorial hailing the Washington Post’s editorial.) As Israeli settlement expert Danny Seidemann tweeted earlier today, “Ignoring [the] devastating impact of settlements on potential agreements is ‘Flat Earth Society’. [It's] taking the Zionist enterprise to [the] territorial cliff.” Today, the Washington Post helped push it a little further toward the edge.

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