Speeches Followed by more Settlements [May 22 – May 28]

As Palestinians and Israelis continue to mull over the speeches of US President Barack Obama and the subsequent speeches of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before AIPAC and then the US Congress, Israeli authorities on the ground continue with their own agenda of settlement building in Palestine.

On May 27, several high level Israeli officials attended a “dedication ceremony” for an east Jerusalem settlement, Ma’aleh Zeitim. Palestinians and Israeli activists flocked to the scene to protest, after which police threw stun grenades and arrested at least six Israelis.

Earlier in the week, on May 22, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved the construction of 294 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit, according to Peace Now. Barak also approved building homes for the elderly and a shopping center in the illegal settlement of Efrat.

The settlement expansion comes after both President Obama and Netanyahu addressed AIPAC on May 22, the former to smooth over any tensions that his May 19 speech may have caused and the latter to further entrench his right-wing policies for Israel. Obama took the opportunity to clarify his position on the now-controversial 1967 borders reference.

“By definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967,” the US president said. “It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years. It allows the parties themselves to take account of those changes, including the new demographic realities on the ground, and the needs of both sides.”

In his speech, Obama mentioned Israel’s security 23 times. He did not mention Palestine’s once. In his May 19 speech and his address to AIPAC, Obama also called the recent Palestinian reconciliation deal a major obstacle to peace. President Abbas rejected Obama’s statement saying on May 22, “Hamas is part of Palestinian society,” he said.

Then on May 24, while Obama was on a European tour, Netanyahu received 25 standing ovations in a speech before the US Congress. In it, he outlined his so-called peace plan: no to a return of refugees to their homes, no to a divided Jerusalem, and no to a withdrawal to the 1967 borders, which he said were “indefensible lines”, a particular jab at Obama’s earlier speech.

President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed Netanyahu’s vision of “peace”, saying his speech contained “nothing we can build on.” As for Obama’s speech, while the Palestinians had their reservations, the leadership also said that that PLO would return to negotiations if Israel agreed to the principles the US leader outlined. If not, they warned, the Palestinians would head to the UN in September.

On that note, pressure from Israel and the United States continued on the Palestinians to abort their quest for statehood within the corridors of the United Nations. Obama said on May 24 he thought it would be wrong for the Palestinians to pursue UN recognition instead of peace talks with Israel. “For the Palestinians to take the United Nations route rather than the path of sitting down and talking with the Israelis is a mistake,” he said.

While President Obama and Netanyahu both warned against the Palestinians’ diplomatic maneuver, Abbas said on May 27 that the leadership would have no other choice if negotiations are not resumed. “We will review … the steps we will take — persisting with negotiations as the fundamental way to achieving a resolution,” Abbas said. “If we fail in reaching this solution, then we confirm that we will go to the United Nations,” he said during his trip to Doha, Qatar for a meeting of Arab states in order to discuss Obama’s speech and ways to revive the peace process in addition to Netanyahu’s negative response to it.

The UN had something to say about the subject as well. On May 27, president of the United Nations General Assembly said there is no way a Palestinian state could become a member of the United Nations without a recommendation from the Security Council.

Joseph Deiss said if the United States or any other permanent council member used its veto, the General Assembly would not be able to vote on membership for Palestine. A US veto is, of course, what everyone is expecting should the proposal go to vote. Palestinians need two-thirds of the 192-body to take the vote to the Security Council, which the Palestinians are confident they will receive.

On May 26, G8 countries meeting in France said they supported President Obama’s initiative on establishing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.

One border seems to be easing up. On May 25, Egyptian authorities said they would open the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza on a daily basis as a way to ease the Israeli blockade on the Strip.

The measure is to go into force on May 28 and will be opened for eight hours a day. In order to allay Israeli fears, Egypt explained that the Rafah crossing would not be used to transfer goods, and that restrictions would be imposed on the movement of individuals.

The announcement was welcomed by Palestinians in the Strip and the Hamas movement in charge. Even the United States was reassuring, saying on May 26 that it was confident Egypt would provide adequate gate-keeping at the crossing to Gaza.

In its constant bid to protect Israeli security, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. had “some concerns” about increasing the movement of more people to and from the Strip, but added the Egyptians were “well aware” of them.

“We obviously support efforts to meet the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people in Gaza, but those efforts should also ensure that the transfer of weapons or other material or financial support for terrorism is blocked,” Toner said.

“We also believe that the Egyptians are fully aware of and capable of providing that kind of security.”

Meanwhile, consultations are underway to choose ministers for the new transitional government. According to Fateh Central Committee member Nabil Shaath on May 27 the government will be formed in 10 days time with ministers who are neither from Fateh nor Hamas but are independent technocrats.

Finally, in a bid to avoid another bloody episode, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called “on all governments” in the region on May 27 to try and stop any new flotilla of ships planning to break the blockade on Gaza. Ban said all governments concerned should use their influence to discourage such flotillas, “which carry the potential to escalate into violent conflict.”

The UN chief was referring to the May 2010 Turkish flotilla that tried to break the siege, which resulted in a sea raid on the ships by Israeli navy forces that killed nine Turkish citizens.

(www.miftah.org / 28.05.2011)

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