Wednesday, August 5, 2009

U.S. seeking year-long settlement freeze

Haaretz has reported that the Obama administration has requested that the Israeli government agree to a one-year settlement freeze in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The U.S. team has referred to a possible freeze as a "deposit" on the peace process in return for gestures from the Palestinians and other Arab states. Israel has indicated it would be willing to halt construction in specific areas for no longer than six months, and has argued that projects already underway must be allowed to be completed. Special envoy George Mitchell and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu are to meet later this month to finalize details on the freeze.

Pushing for and achieving even a temporary settlement freeze is the right policy for the Obama administration to pursue. The move builds Obama's credibility among the Arab states and allows the constructing of "facts on the ground" (Israeli settlements in areas sought by the Palestinians and the UN for the future Palestinian state) to be halted. Settlement expansion greatly undermines good-faith negotiations between the two parties, however the duration of such a freeze is unimportant if final status talks on the border between Israel and Palestine and the future status of Jerusalem are immediately pursued following the settlement moratorium. Past peace initiatives have generally delayed negotiations on such major issues until the very end, hoping that agreements can be made on smaller issues that will build trust and allow for a favorable atmosphere for the more challenging issues such as borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. If an agreement can be reached, however, on borders at the beginning of such talks, concrete improvements would be available for both Israelis and Palestinians. An internationally recognized and supported agreement on borders would allow Israel to build freely and without scrutiny on their side of the border. The Palestinians would benefit from increased freedom of movement and an end to settlement expansion that causes land confiscation, travel delays, the separation wall, and general economic and social uncertainty.

A prudent idea may be to convince the Israelis to agree to an initial three-month settlement freeze in exchange for a reciprocal gesture from the Palestinians or Arab states (temporary commercial flyover rights perhaps). During the freeze, negotiations over borders and Jerusalem - and only these issues - would take place with the hope of reaching an agreement that would make extending the freeze unnecessary. Once the agreement is in place, both sides would take steps to recognize the new borders and begin to make preparations to finalize these borders as the internationally supported demarcation between two sovereign states.

If an agreement cannot be reached before the temporary freeze in construction, the U.S. should pressure both sides to extend their temporary gestures until the border issue can be resolved.

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