As the Obama administration's Mideast policy takes shape, the White House must contend with doubters' claims that even its minimal first steps are unrealistic. These positive first steps include calling for Israel to live up to its Bush2-era (and earlier) promise to halt settlement construction and for Muslim-led states and Hamas to recognize Israel. The Israeli right, for one, is up in arms in response to the recent initiatives, as a creepy new video by the right-wing Likud politician and settler Moshe Feiglin demonstrates. Feiglin compares Obama's Cairo speech to the appeasement of Neville Chamberlain, and he insists, with supremely unconscious irony, that Muslims are inherently fanatical while Jews only want peace -- within the expansive borders of "Greater Israel." (Feiglin, who earned more than 23% of the vote for Likud leadership in the August 2007 primaries, has called for the outright expulsion of all Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank: they can live more happily in wealthy UAR or Qatar, he insists.)
On Tuesday, Haaretz reported that the White House, facing staunch resistance by the Likud-led Netanyahu administration, had come to a determination that it might not be possible to halt Israeli settlement construction already underway. Hundreds of illegal new homes in the Occupied Territories are in the balance, including those in 100 or so illegal outposts which have been established with the tacit collusion of Israeli authorities; those which recently have been established on "recycled" former Israeli military bases; and supposedly "new neighborhoods" of existing settlements that actually constitute far-flung satellite settlements. If the Obama administration lets the new construction continue, a viable Israeli-Palestinian accord will be less rather than more conceivable, let alone practical. (Peace Now has published a helpful "layman's guide" to freezing all settlement construction).
In view of the positive new proposals coming from the White House, even many Israelis therefore were taken aback by the Obama administration's sudden concession, expressed in the past few days, that it would be more "flexible" in its demand for a total settlement freeze. In response, Peace Now and other liberal Israeli groups immediately forwarded documents to the White House showing that in 1992, when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had declared a complete halt in Israeli settlement construction, settler organizations and private contractors sued the Israeli government to force completion of existing settlement projects -- and lost. The Israeli government's victorious lawyer in the case, Talia Sasson, proved to the High Court of Justice's satisfaction that the Israeli government had the authority to halt settlement construction as national policy needs changed.
What held true in the Israeli courts in 1992 also holds today. Freezing Israeli settlement construction now rather than later is legal according to established Israeli precedent and it sends the correct message to Israel and the Palestinians. The hands-off diplomatic approach of the Bush years is over. That failed policy merely allowed the Israelis to continue illegally expanding settlements and thereby creating obstructionist "facts on the ground." In President Obama's first foray into the Middle East morass, he appears to be charting a new policy direction that aims to hold both sides to their promises and obligations (here's one good analysis of the new approach). Now is the time for the Administration to stay that course. Those with a vested interest in seeing the Obama policy fail are desperately searching for any sign that the new US administration will blink, but achieving a secure peace in the region requires what may be the simplest yet rarest trait of international diplomacy: consistency.
Last update - 21:12 16/06/2009
Documents suggest total settlement freeze is possible
By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz Correspondent
Papers produced in response to report Israel convinced U.S. it would be impossible to halt construction.
The report in Haaretz on Tuesday whereby the U.S. administration has become convinced that it would be impossible to freeze West Bank settlement construction altogether came as a shock to Israeli peace activists.
The activists quickly handed over to the Americans documents proving the legal system's approval of a settlement freeze, containing High Court of Justice rulings in which the justices rejected petitions filed by settler organizations in a bid to prevent the settlement freeze.
Two panels of judges who reviewed the petitions ruled that there was no legal reason to prevent the freezing of the construction and that the policy formulated by the government had only to do with financial considerations, which were up to the sole discretion of the government, and not the legal system.
The petitions, filed against the Yitzhak Rabin administration in 1992, came after the government decided to freeze the construction in the settlements, in accordance with assurances given to the American administration.
The settlers argued in their petition that the freezing of construction work underway in Kiryat Arba, Ariel, Revava and Avney Hefetz would cause irreversible harm to these communities and could even bring about a "degeneration and extermination" of these communities. They argued, furthermore, that "a serious demoralization was taking shape, which was harming the urban and social fabric of life" in the settlements. The settlements in question had been established by private entrepreneurs in accordance with government guidelines formulated in 1984.
In ruling to reject the petition, the court said that "the new [government] policy reflects a shift in the national agenda, after the previous administration encouraged construction in the said areas."
The construction of thousands of apartments in Israel and in the Palestinian territories was halted under a direct order included in the contract struck between the state and every one of the construction companies involved in the building. The contracts signed between the state and the construction companies, in most cases, included an assurance on the part of the government to purchase apartments that weren't sold to buyers, and the government fully compensated the companies.
Attorney Talia Sasson, who represented the state in these hearings, told Haaretz that the government and the military have full authority to issue orders instructing companies to halt construction in the settlements, be it private or public, in accordance with the government policy. She added that anyone who feels that the policy has caused him harm is free to file a compensation claim and the matter will be discussed in the civilian courts.
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