In yet another affront to American efforts to revive Israeli- Palestinian peace talks, the Israeli government has approved new plans to expand Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.
According to the Israeli group Peace Now, construction of 14- housing units inside Ma`aleh David, a planned housing complex inside the Ras Al-Amud neighbourhood, has been given the go- ahead. If all goes according to plan, the project will become the largest Jewish settlement development in the occupied Arab town.
Neither the Israeli government nor the town`s municipal council publicly announced the plans, apparently fearing negative reactions and repercussions from Washington. Statements by Israeli officials announcing the construction of new settlements, which coincided with US Vice-President Joe Biden`s visit to Israel several weeks ago, proved embarrassing to Washington and politically damaging for the Israeli government.
Palestinian official Hatem Abdel-Qader has also revealed Israeli plans to seize a large Muslim waqf property not far from the American consulate. The Sheikh Shamsuddin Yamlali Endowment, which includes a small mosque and a car parking lot run by local Palestinians, has been registered as an Islamic waqf (endowment) for at least four centuries, Palestinian sources said.
Coming on the eve of the resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), Palestinian officials denounced the expansion in East Jerusalem. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereikat said the new scheme was a serious affront that undermined trust-building just as the Obama administration was trying to get proximity talks moving.
`The whole concept of proximity talks is to give Senator Mitchell and US President Barack Obama the chance they deserve. If they begin doing this construction they will undermine the proximity talks.`
But it is the Netanyahu government, not the Obama administration, that appears to be calling the shots. The PA leadership tried and failed to get Washington to exert pressure on Israel to freeze settlement expansion, if only so it might save face. Eventually, though, it swallowed its pride and decided, in the face of US pressure, to resume stalled talks with Israel.
To the PA`s chagrin, instead of exerting meaningful pressure on Israel, the Obama administration seems to be re-directing pressure towards the PA, warning the weak and vulnerable entity that the US would withdraw from `peace-making` efforts and leave the PA to its fate should it fail to resume the uncertain peace talks.
The PA leadership caved in. On Tuesday, 11 May, President Obama called PA President Mahmoud Abbas in an apparent attempt to soothe the Palestinian leadership`s growing frustration. During the short conversation Obama is reported to have reasserted his commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state. However, nothing was said about the borders of such a state, or whether any peace deal would include full Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem.
At the end of a PLO executive meeting in Ramallah earlier this week it was announced that talks would be resumed within 10 days. In fact, talks had already been resumed quietly with US envoy George Mitchell moving back and forth between occupied Ramallah and occupied Jerusalem.
The meeting was acrimonious, with some executive committee members arguing that peace talks with the Netanyahu government were pointless. Abbas reportedly agreed with the objectors, saying that he knew another round or two -- even 50 rounds -- of talks with the current Israeli government would lead nowhere, but added it would be a diplomatic mistake for the Palestinians to appear to be the party that is impeding progress.
`We should let Washington see which party is obstructing peace,` Abbas is said to have told his colleagues.
Following the meeting, PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo said the proximity talks would last no more than four months, after which the PA would assess whether or not there was a justification for continuing the process.
Meanwhile, US officials were urging the sides to contemplate moving to direct talks as soon as possible. `We would like to see a full-fledged peace process,` Mitchell reportedly told negotiators.
The current US stance, argue political observers, reveals the Obama administration is more concerned about notching up a diplomatic victory than making genuine political progress in Palestine.
With US failure to force Israel to freeze settlement expansion in occupied Arab territories, Netanyahu is already claiming victory, convinced his uncompromising policies have been vindicated, and that the US and the Arabs have come to the conclusion that there is no pay off in pressuring Israel.
On the face of it, Netanyahu is justified. This week Israel succeeded in joining the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), while claiming Israel`s accession to the group constituted a `seal of approval` on his policies.
`Joining [the OECD] is like receiving a university degree,` Netanyahu said. `Entering [the OECD] will open doors and provide access to many fields. It`s a seal of approval.`
On Monday, 10 May, the 31 members of the OECD unanimously voted in favour of Israel joining. The Palestinian Authority sought unsuccessfully to impede Israel`s entry into the group, citing Israeli violations of international law and its human rights record in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Meanwhile, a prominent American academic has argued that Israel faces a bleak future if it continues to undermine the two-state solution strategy on which the current peace process is based.
John J Mearsheimer, co-author of a well-known study showing the impact of the American Jewish lobby on US policy in the Middle East, called American-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians a `charade`.
In an article published this week, Mearsheimer said the US was unable to pressure Israel thanks to the lobby, adding that Israel was unlikely to allow for the creation of a genuine, viable and territorially contiguous Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
`The two sides will engage in endless talks while Israel will continue to colonise Palestinian lands. The likely result, therefore, will be a Greater Israel between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.`
The leading US academic argued that `no American president can pressure Israel to change its policies towards the Palestinians`.
`The main reason is the Israeli lobby, a powerful coalition of American Jews and Christian Evangelicals that has a profound influence on US Middle East policy.`
Mearsheimer even quoted Alan Dershowitz, an American Zionist stalwart, as boasting that `my generation of Jews became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fundraising effort in the history of democracy.`