Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Building boom

The latest crisis in the Mideast peace process centers on Israel’s announcement of further construction in East Jerusalem just as U.S. Vice-president Joseph Biden was arriving to try to nudge everyone a little closer to the table. Israeli construction in areas that the Arabs consider subject to negotiation has become a major obstacle to getting the talks restarted, and the timing of the announcement looked like a provocation on the part of the Israelis. The U.S. fumed, the Israelis claimed the timing was an accident, and the Palestinians were unsurprised.

This brouhaha has followed a familiar script: Israel keeps building on land that the Palestinians think ought to be returned to them as part of a peace settlement, the U.S. makes token complaints, and the Palestinians refuse to talk as long as the construction crews are working. The problem seems intractable because the U.S. doesn’t want to bring too much pressure on Israel and the Palestinians understandably don’t want to seem to accept continued erosion of their territory by expanding Israeli settlements. So noise levels rise but so do the apartment blocks in Ariel and Neve Yaakov.

The whole thing rests on an unspoken assumption: that if a building is constructed by an Israeli crew, it must be occupied until the end of time by Israelis. Nobody ever says this, of course, but that seems to be the assumption, at least publicly. We read of “Jewish housing” and “Arab housing” as if Israelis and Palestinians were different species with radically different habitats, as if a faucet or an electrical outlet will only work for people of a particular ethnicity.

I have a suggestion for breaking the logjam: President Obama, or perhaps Secretary of State Clinton, should make a simple but very public announcement: “The United States does not take it as given that construction currently occupied by Israeli citizens must remain so, or that construction currently occupied by Palestinian citizens must remain so.”

The implication of this, of course, is that a peace agreement may entail border adjustments and population movement. You might think that this should go without saying, but apparently not. The assumption on both sides is that once the Israelis move in, they are never going to move out. It’s easy to see why the Israelis would wish to promote this view, but it’s harder to see why the Palestinians would accept it. If I were Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, I would say something like, “Let them build all those nice apartment blocks. The amenities will be much appreciated by the Palestinian families who move in when the land is ceded to us by a peace agreement.”

That would be taking a big chance of course, as long as the U.S. is complicit in promoting the view that a building constructed by Israelis can only ever house Israelis. I think this unspoken idea is possibly the greatest obstacle to progress in peace negotiations. If we want to support the peace process, we need to de-link it from the construction issue. And all it would take would be a simple announcement.

Announce that the U.S. considers eventual occupation of any Israeli construction in disputed areas to be subject to negotiation along with everything else, and watch how Israeli zeal for building in Arab areas would diminish. Watch how Palestinian reluctance to come to the table would evaporate. To make the announcement would be tantamount to saying that the U.S. is serious about promoting a genuine peace process.

Just a thought...

Sam Reaves