If you were to listen to the Republican debates over the last few weeks, and tune out all other news (God help you, but bear with me), you might think that the Israelis were sitting at the negotiating table waiting, waiting, waiting for the Palestinians who went out for a glass of water and never came back. Though all the candidates seem to pay easy lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state (Yes, even Newt Gingrich, who called the Palestinians an “invented people”a few weeks back), there is little doubt, at least on the campaign trail, where the Republican Party positions itself on the conflict in the Near East, who is to blame and who is blameless.
“There are some people who say, should we have a two-state solution? And the Israelis would be happy to have a two-state solution. It’s the Palestinians who don’t want a two-state solution. They want to eliminate the state of Israel,” said former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in Florida last week. Chimed in Newt Gingrich, “My goal for the Palestinian people would be [for them] to live in peace, to live in prosperity, to have the dignity of a state, to have freedom,” he said. “And they can achieve it any morning they are prepared to say Israel has a right to exist, we give up the right to return, and we recognize that we’re going to live side-by-side, now let’s work together to create mutual prosperity.” Both chastise the Obama administration’s failure to stand by Israel. Romney even (falsely) accused the administration of going “before the United Nations and castigat[ing] Israel for building settlements. He said nothing about thousands of rockets being rained in on Israel from the Gaza Strip.”
If the Obama administration has fallen down on the peace process, it’s certainly not in the ways the GOP candidates have described. In fact, it’s the administration’s reticence to push the Netanyahu government towards concessions, on settlement building in particular, that Israeli activists point to when they say that goal of living side by side with the Palestinians is perilously close to unattainable.
Jerusalem-based Israeli attorney and geopolitical expert Danny Seidemann is in Washington, D.C. this week, armed with a message: the two-state solution has only the barest chance of survival. If current approved and funded projects for major settlement building in the Jerusalem area are allowed to continue, by the end of 2013 there will be an additional 45,000 settlers in the settlements that ring Jerusalem, an increase of 23 percent, and a buildup beyond the footprint of existing settlements by 3.1 square km (approximately 2 miles), a 15 percent increase in the settlements’ territorial base.
What does that mean? Seidemann says it means we cannot wait for the end of the Republican primary season; there is no time to wait for American elections in November. If these projects aren’t halted immediately, he says, the two-state solution will no longer be geographically feasible. The ability to construct a contiguous Palestinian state will be lost for good.
Seidemann is the founder/director of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem, which articulates its mission as working to “identify and track the full spectrum of developments in Jerusalem that could impact either the political process or permanent status options, destabilize the city or spark violence, or create humanitarian crises.” He comes to the United States every year to brief the negotiators and the conflict-resolution professionals; he carries a message that gets increasingly more dire as time passes.
“While the large settlement neighborhoods in East Jerusalem create daunting difficulties in implementing a political division of the city, the possibility to do so still exists in the beginning of 2012,” Seidemann explained in a talk hosted by Americans for Peace Now. “That said, during the last decade settlement construction has eroded significantly into the possibility of implementing the two-state solution in Jerusalem.” Entire neighborhoods have been constructed in areas once slated for land swap.
Settlement activity, Seidemann said, after a quiet and unheralded seven-month freeze that began in March 2009, has increased in the last 18 months to levels not seen since the 1970s. “While under current circumstances, the implementation of the two state solution in East Jerusalem is still, with difficulty, possible. Our projections indicate that this will not be the case by the end of 2013.”
Seidemann’s views may sound dire, but they were echoed this week by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Ban admonished Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying settlement building “does not help the ongoing peace process … [Israel] should refrain from further settlement for the sake of ongoing peace talks. This can be a way of expressing goodwill gestures.” British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg echoed the secretary general’s sentiments last week in London. Seidemann said it’s not a coincidence. Israeli activists are looking to the Europeans and international organizations to step in where the Americans have faltered. But, he noted, nothing can really replace our presence in the region. We just need to step up.
Sarah Wildman is a columnist for the International Herald Tribune, a regular contributor to The New York Times, Slate and The Guardian, and a contributing editor at The Forward. Follow her on Twitter: @sarahawildman