Israel’s recent granting of planning approval for 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, especially whilst US vice president Joe Biden was in the country backing an initiative for new peace talks, was clearly unhelpful. As our foreign secretary David Miliband asserted in reaction to the news, this was “a bad decision at the wrong time”, the two parties’ commitment to peace “needs to be demonstrated not only by words, but by actions”. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since agreed that the announcement “should not have occurred”, conceding that it was “regrettable” and “hurtful”.
Unfortunately however, this incident was, in many ways, inevitable. When prime minister Netanyahu announced in November that all residential West Bank settlement construction would cease for ten months, as a gesture aimed at restarting peace talks, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton lauded the move as “unprecedented”. In that respect, Clinton was right; no Israeli government in history has ever imposed such stringent restrictions on West Bank construction. However, as was made very clear by the Israeli government at the time, these restrictions were never intended to apply to Jerusalem.
Beyond the intricacies of the US-Israel relationship, the debacle also exposes the fundamental difficulty of dealing with the issue of Jerusalem’s future. Unlike Israel’s West Bank settlements, which have always been regarded as being beyond ‘Israel proper’ and have their own governance structures, Jerusalem has been treated by all Israeli governments since its annexation in 1967 as an inexorable and integral part of the country, governed locally by the Jerusalem municipality, which makes its own planning decisions, without need for higher approval.
Whilst this situation is definitely not conducive to peace negotiations – and undoubtedly will have to change in a final status agreement if the city is to become the capital of both states – it is the current reality. Nor is it to argue that US pressure hasn’t been helpful in this regard; if it were not for Obama’s insistence, there would be no Israeli settlement freeze at all and the Jerusalem municipality would probably not have taken the unofficial decision five months ago to cease all demolitions of homes in Arab areas built without permits.
I first visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2007, and, as chair of Labour Friends of Israel, have since led delegations of British MPs to the region in both 2008 and 2009. From my discussions with both Israeli and Palestinian politicians and grassroots organisations, I am fully aware of the challenges that the two peoples face, but I am also aware of progress made in recent years, progress that we should seek to champion as a precursor to an independent, democratic Palestinian state – progress often overlooked in the British media.
Movement and access, and the availability of water, for example, continue to improve in the West Bank due to increased Israeli-Palestinian Authority co-operation. Indeed, the visible changes in Ramallah between my visits in 2008 and 2009 were remarkable. The West Bank economy is rapidly expanding year-on-year, greatly assisted by the lifting of checkpoints and roadblocks as the British- and US-trained Palestinian policing units take more control over internal security in Palestinian towns and villages.
Prospects of achieving a two state solution are, of course, not only reliant upon the number of settler homes built, or the health of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Amongst a range of difficult issues, prospects are also deeply affected by Hamas and its continuing control of the Gaza Strip, a territory it uses as leverage over the Palestinian Authority to undermine any peace talks that do take place and also as a base for launching terror attacks against Israel. Only last week a civilian was killed in southern Israel by a rocket fired from Gaza, an act rightly described by Middle East Minster Ivan Lewis as “unacceptable” and to be “condemned by all those who are committed to peace and stability in the Middle East”. In addition, as life for ordinary Palestinians in the West Bank improves, the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip remains dire with Israel and Egypt severely restricting the quantity and type of goods allowed into the territory in an effort to prevent Hamas from manufacturing rockets for use against Israeli civilians.
Despite all of these problems, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the core issues of the conflict cannot be properly resolved in any other forum but negotiations.
As progressives, I believe we should therefore support our Labour government’s call for talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to restart, taking all practical measures at their disposal to make this happen. Succeeding in this task is too important to allow ourselves to be overly diverted by the day-to-day symptoms of the conflict. We know the symptoms all too well – now the parties need to get working on the solutions.
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