There has been harsh criticism leveled at Israel for recently approving new settlements in the West Bank.
455 new housing units have been approved in various West Bank settlements prompting even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, speaking though his spokesman, to condemn the settlements as contrary to international law and the roadmap.
Nonetheless, the housing units have been approved, supposedly with the full knowledge of the US government and the US middle east peace envoy, and in addition to these housing units the Israeli Education Minister has recently promised to continue building schools in the settlements. All this has provoked comments from the PA that US credibility is at stake for their inability to force the Israeli government to stop construction.
Meanwhile, Egyptian officials noted that--in what would seem to be in spite of US efforts--some Arab states would be inclined to normalization with Israel in exchange for a settlement freeze, but that a settlement freeze is not equal to full normalization of relations.
Amidst all this concern over the approval of new housing units, it seems that the units are not new at all. According to Ha'Aretz, most of these housing units already exist or are being constructed. That's not to say that all the condemnation is much ado about nothing, but it's much ado about something that has happened as long ago as 1999. The facts that these permits may have created already exist and have for years.
That this announcement was made about all these housing units being built, when internationally such an announcement is unhelpful and the facts already exist seems to indicate that the announcement was a domestic political move. The current Israeli government is likely merely appealing to the settler constituency by demonstrating that they are willing to help the settlers, despite the reality that nothing new has really been given.
It also exposes some interesting points about the value of settlements as a bargaining chip. It is true that the settlements are part of the road map and ought to be stopped. Nonetheless, the current Israeli government seems to be using a settlement freeze as a commodity to offer in negotiations. The Egyptian comments that a settlement freeze is not the same as normalization of relations but only an inclination towards such normalization will no doubt make the Israeli government somewhat less inclined to offer the freeze when all they may get for it is a possible change in attitude from certain, unnamed Arab states. Netanyahu is being asked to make a very difficult political decision in exchange for a possible intangible.
Following from this point is the question of US credibility in the region. If the US can be said to lose credibility if Israel doesn't freeze settlements, surely it also loses credibility if Arab states are not willing to normalize relations. The reality is that the US can apply pressure to foreign states, but it does not control the government of foreign states, neither Israeli nor Arab. Indeed the proposition that the US ought to be able to force Israel to do or not do something implies that Israel is somehow a colony of the US or under control of the US government, which is simply not true. It would also be a dangerous proposition to reinforce in the Arab world which sees Israel as illegitimate, and the impression that it is not sovereign, serves only to feed this perception.
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