Back when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a ten-month moratorium on settlement construction in late November, the timing was not accidental. It was reasonably speculated that the expiration date—late September, i.e., now—was calculated as a point at which U.S. president Barack Obama, under whose pressure the freeze was instated in the first place, would be in a weak position.
Back in November, Obama’s once-soaring domestic popularity had already taken a plunge, and it could be conjectured that he would be in the same or worse shape come September—with, moreover, his party facing midterm elections. Presumably, then, once Obama inevitably began pressuring Israel to extend the moratorium, whether or not talks with the Palestinians were taking place, he wouldn’t be able to do it with much “oomph” given Israel’s support in Congress and the U.S. public at large.
Has Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas outsmarted this strategy? It may well seem so.
As it turned out, Abbas continued stonewalling putative “peace talks” with Israel until the settlement moratorium had almost run out, and then claimed he was hanging his further participation on its extension. By all accounts, he only finally agreed to enter the talks under heavy U.S. and European pressure. Yet, thanks to his timing, with the end of the freeze approaching, the pressure now shifted to—Netanyahu.
And, sure enough, when the moratorium ran its course early this week without being renewed, and building, albeit small-scale, resumed in a few Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), it was Israel that drew international ire.
U.S. State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley said the U.S. was “disappointed” by the building resumption. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon also said he was “disappointed” and “concerned at provocative actions taking place on the ground,” and claimed settlement activity was “illegal under international law.”
The same term served British foreign secretary William Hague, who said he was “disappointed to hear that the moratorium has not been renewed” and “call[ed] on Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government to show leadership to resolve this so the parties can focus on the real challenges ahead.” As for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, she too was unequivocal, saying she “strongly regrets” the resumed construction and that “the position of the EU is very clear: settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible.”
Whether or not the talks eventually resume, this de rigueur but significant tongue-lashing may make it seem that Abbas has again won the PR battle, setting up Israel as the villain that prefers the supposedly nefarious settlements to peace.
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