29 May 2009

West Bank Settlements: full marks to Mrs Clinton

In some earlier posts I have raised doubts as to whether Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on the same page as President Obama on matters Middle Eastern, or whether she has some other agenda running.

I must acknowledge that she has given her President forceful and unambiguous support on the matter of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, which being on occupied territory are overwhelmingly (but not universally) regarded as illegal under international law. Although the settlements are generally recognised as an obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, successive U.S. Administrations have usually treated us to a display of hand-wringing whenever they have been expanded, or whenever the subject comes up.

Not on this occasion, however. When they met in Washington recently President Obama told Mr Netanyahu that the matter had to be addressed, and Mrs Clinton has just spelled out exactly what that means. To quote the Australian Financial Review’s Washington correspondent Tony Walker in his piece on 29 May:

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has employed the toughest language by a US official in years to urge Israel to halt all settlement activity in a significant escalation of pressure on the new Israeli Government.

Speaking at the State Department with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit at her side, Mrs Clinton said President Barack Obama had made it clear that a complete cessation of all settlement-building was a precondition for progress towards Middle East peace.

“He wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions,” Mrs Clinton said in a clear reference to arguments by Israeli leaders that existing settlements should be allowed to “thicken” to accommodate an expanding population.

“We think it is in the best interests [of the peace process] that settlement expansion cease,” she said. “That is our position. That is what we have communicated clearly. And we intend to press the point”.

Tony Walker noted that about half a million Jewish settlers live in the 121 settlements that have been established on the West Bank, and that the settler movement is an important element of Mr Netanyahu’s political base.

The US Administration is of course correct in regarding the settlements as an obstacle to a settlement with the Palestinians. They are meant to be. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was an enthusiastic patron of the settler movement, saw the creation of a network of Israeli settlements as “changing the facts on the ground”, apparently believing that once a settlement was established it would have to remain.

Perhaps he was right, and perhaps that is the way forward, but not in the way Mr Sharon and other members of Likud and the settler movement intended. Their intent was that the settlements, once established, would have to become/remain part of Israel.

But what if the world were to apply normal legal principles to the settlements? One does not normally acquire title to someone else’s land by constructing illegal buildings on it, so why should this case be any different? If the peace negotiations start from the position that British Mandate Palestine is to be divided into two sovereign states (the only reasonable proposition, unless the Israelis and Palestinians were prepared to consider one sovereign state which seems unlikely), why would anything other than the 1967 boundaries define the part of the West Bank that is to be included in sovereign Palestine? The settlers are on the West Bank now, let them stay and become citizens of Palestine if they wish, just as there are Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Of course, as citizens of Israel the settlers could return to Israel if they wish, but there is no need for them to do so as long as they are content to be law-abiding citizens of the Palestinian State. They have made a free choice to live in what we used to call the Occupied Territories. We could respect that choice, now that it has happened, but they cannot bring Israeli sovereignty with them, and they cannot be allowed to exercise a veto over the options for a just settlement for the Palestinians, which is the only possible basis for a sustainable peace settlement.

This might sound radical, but what are the alternatives – the ghastliness of a “transfer of populations”, or further reduction of the small proportion of Mandate Palestine that the Palestinians can aspire to? Who knows, it might even be a step along the road to the two peoples learning to live together.

And once it became clear that settlements and settlers were to remain a part of Palestine, there would be no point in rushing to “thicken” them.

No comments: