Bibi, Settlements & Peace Talks -- Analysis

On August 8th, the world saw an Israeli government decision to promote or retroactively approve around 1000 West Bank settlement units, including some in illegal outposts. August 11th, the world saw the issuance of tenders – a major Rubicon – for another 1200 units, 790 in East Jerusalem. And then, on August 12th, the world saw the approval of 942 new units in East Jerusalem for which construction permits will be granted within months, not years – another Rubicon – plus another 400 units that require additional planning.  (A timeline/details of recent Jerusalem settlement-related developments is available here).

To some degree, settlement approvals in the run-up to the second round of talks were not a surprise. In the absence of an agreed-on settlement freeze, it was clear that this process, going forward, would be messy. It had been clearly hinted by U.S. officials that they anticipated settlement approvals during the 9-month negotiating period. Moreover, given Netanyahu’s perceived need to mollify his pro-settler coalition partners, and his clear desire to focus attention away from his decision to release Palestinian prisoners, settlement announcement during his period were clearly likely.

However, what has happened in recent days goes well beyond political posturing or domestic political maneuvering.

Since the start of the New Year, there has been for all intents and purposes a freeze in Israeli government-backed settlement activity in East Jerusalem (the situation in the West Bank is somewhat different, and is outside the scope of this analysis). Now, with these latest announcements, tenders, and approvals, that freeze has ended and the settlement floodgates have been opened. If it had been hoped that Netanyahu would act with “restraint” – offering only the minimum necessary to permit him to keep his right-wing coalition partners in check – that hope has been dashed.   Instead, it appears that Netanyahu and his pro-settler partners in government are racing to exploit the nascent peace effort in implement a far-reaching (and in no way hidden) East Jerusalem settlement agenda.

They are doing so confident in the twin beliefs, it seems, that the Palestinians cannot afford to walk away from the negotiating table, no matter how great the humiliation or the provocation, and that Secretary Kerry and Special Envoy Martin Indyk are not likely to exact a price that cannot be borne.

The Israeli media is already reporting that additional settlement approvals will accompany each prisoner release – of which there will be three more in the coming 8 months. If the current ratio of new settlement units to prisoners released continues, we can expect a total of around 12,000 new settlement units to be approved, promoted, or tendered during this 9-month negotiating process, many in East Jerusalem (and many others in highly problematic areas of the West Bank). New settlement activity of this scope cannot in any way be viewed as consistent with a commitment to a negotiated, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also cannot be consistent with a credible peace effort.

Kerry’s response seemed to be calibrated to the nature and details of his understandings with Netanyahu, which have not been made public. The American response appears to reflect a deep concern over the implications of a settlement surge, a reluctant concession that no “hard undertaking” had been violated, and the necessity to take steps, vis-à-vis both Israel and the Palestinians, to ensure that these announcements would not cause a collapse of the talks.

Extrapolating from this response, one can surmise that Netanyahu made a limited specific undertaking regarding the numbers of units that would be tendered and where they might be, and a more amorphous undertaking to “act with self-restraint” elsewhere. If this was the case, then it appears that while Netanyahu may not have violated the letter of the former undertaking, he may have gone well beyond any reasonable interpretation of the latter.

Whether the U.S. response to this initial surge will suffice in eliciting more responsible behavior from Netanyahu, deterring him from similar actions in the future, remains to be seen. If it does not, it is only a matter of time before a critical mass of settlement announcements will place the talks in grave jeopardy.

At the same time, the U.S. response is also not the only factor in play. While the U.S., for reasons cited above and as a result of being the hands-on mediator, may feel limited in its room to respond to Netanyahu’s actions, this is clearly not been the case with other international players. Indeed, at this point the biggest, and perhaps only, incentive that Netanyahu has to significantly curb settlement activities is the belief that he cannot afford to be perceived by the international community as having let the issue of settlements scuttle the Kerry initiative.