U.S. special envoy George Mitchell has been frantically shuttling between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in order to salvage the month-old direct negotiations. The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has also been recruited to throw the weight of the EU behind the peace efforts. Even President Obama himself has been personally involved, trying to find "common ground between the parties."
In fact, in order to secure Israel's support for a sixty-day settlement building moratorium extension, the Obama administration, in a draft letter, has offered a string of assurances to Israel ranging from current peace and security matters to future weapons deliveries in the event that peace-related security arrangements are reached. The details of the letter were published on the Washington Institute for Near East Policy website by senior researcher David Makovsky. According to Haaretz, The United States is reportedly incensed over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rejection of the draft letter.
Equally incensed is the head of the Palestinian negotiation team, Saeb Erekat, who said on Wednesday that "there are no half-way solutions on the settlements issue." Erekat and other PA officials have been recently hinting at a Palestinian walk out on the negotiations if Israel refuses to stop building settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. This decision could happen as early as Saturday when the Palestinian leadership meets, and be officially announced at the Arab League meeting in Cairo next week.
To make matters worse, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in a West Bank settlement, revived his plan for "population exchange" before the UN General Assembly.
Lieberman, who heads the second largest party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, called for an "intermediate" accord with the Palestinians because it will take "a few decades" to establish the trust needed for a so-called final-status agreement. He suggested ceding parts of Israel with large Arab populations to a future Palestinian state in exchange for Israel keeping large settlement blocs in the West Bank, a proposal which has been part of his party's platform.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has distanced himself from the speech, but many Palestinians believe that this is part of a well-coordinated 'good cop, bad cop' strategy. They also regard the remarks as incitement and advocacy of ethnic cleansing.
A recent poll released by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center revealed that fifty-four percent of respondents said that the direct talks serve the national interests of the Palestinians. However, 58% said they believed the Palestinian leadership agreed to hold the talks because of external pressure, and more than 55% said they did not expect the talks to produce major changes in the status quo.
But there are rapid changes happening on the ground. Israeli building crews have already resumed work the day after the settlement freeze expired at several settlements, such as Ariel, Oranit, Tekoa and Adam. The building has actually never stopped in many other settlements. In the West Bank, there are more than 300,000 Jewish settlers living in around 100 settlements built adjacent to Palestinian towns and villages and are protected by the Israeli army. Approximately, 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Jewish settlers account for just one percent of the population of the West Bank, according to Dutch cartographer Jan de Jong, but are claiming 60 percent of the land.
"They are just one percent of the whole West Bank population, but they are claiming 60 percent of the land. The settlements are actually just built-up pockets, but the settlers include huge tracts of land around them by laying down barbed wire. So in effect it's more like estates, containing just a few houses."
De Jong who has been monitoring changes on the ground through satellite imagery and other means, says that construction was going on in the settlements even during the 10-month building moratorium which has just expired. "There was building work every day, except on Jewish holidays. That's why I call it a virtual moratorium."
The way things are progressing now, should the "direct talks" continue, a virtual Palestinian state might be the end result.
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