Israeli settlement announcement stalls peace drive in middle east

Israeli settlement announcement creates further tension. Thai protests as PM refuses ultimatum. Public frustration in Iraq as al-Maliki pulls ahead. Growing arms trade could spark global arms race. Top Hamas leader arrest in West Bank. All this and more, in today’s openSecurity update.
Laura Hilger
15 March 2010

The Israeli announcement last week that additional homes would be built in East Jerusalem has threatened US relations with Israel and looks set to hinder renewed peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuexpressed his regret over the announcement but has given no sign that he intends to cancel or postpone the project.

The announcement has embarrassed US Vice President Joe Biden, who was in the region promoting US-led ‘proximity talks’ between Israel and the Palestinians. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has denounced the situation as “a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship…and had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process.”

The settlement announcement has angered the Palestinian Authority, whose precondition for renewed talks with Israel has been the cessation of settlement-building in disputed territories. The recent announcement provides for 1,600 new apartments in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.

openSecurity verdict: There is no doubt that this announcement has come as a shock to many, especially following PM Netanyahu’s announcement in November 2009 of a 10-month freeze on settlement-building in the West Bank. While this moratorium purposefully did not include settlements in East Jerusalem, it was hailed by leaders of the international community and was interpreted as a sign of hope for a renewed peace process, a hope the latest revelations have critically undermined.

Netanyahu is reluctant to break with the ideological right within his ruling coalition, who are outspoken against the US peace efforts in the region as well as the peace process more generally, but is equally susceptible to pressure from the US to move forward in peace negotiations. Since entering office, Netanyahu has walked a fine line between the two, balancing concessions to the US with appeasement of the far-right. Now however, as Aluf Benn of the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, has indicated, the ‘moment of truth’ has arrived, where Netanyahu will need to “choose between his ideological beliefs and political cooperation with the right and his need for U.S. support.”

The ‘proximity talks’ were predicted to start as early as next week, with the US acting as a go-between for Israel and the PA. The talks are meant to focus on ‘core issues’, including statehood borders for a potential Palestinian state and the fate of Jerusalem. Entering into negotiations with Palestinians on these issues will certainly spark condemnation, if not outright revolt, from members of Netanyahu’s coalition partners; however, withdrawing from the talks, or pursing further settlements, will create further tension with, and censure from, the US.

The decision, should Netanyahu need or choose to make it, would have a profound impact on regional politics: chasing his ideological and political beliefs would serve a lasting blow to US-Israeli relations, while siding with US would likely harm his political standing within Israel. Either decision constitutes a political risk, but pressure from both sides may only be resisted with a more definitive stance.

Further settlements on disputed territory will only increase Palestinian resentment against Israel. While East Jerusalem was conquered from Jordan in the 1967 war, Palestinians in the occupied territories claim it as the capital of any future Palestinian state, as has Israel, with limited foreign recognition The implementation of Israel’s planned settlement expansion will spark retribution from Palestinian militant group Hamas and stall, if not terminate, for the push for ‘proximity talks’ between the two nations’ representatives.

Thai protests continue as PM rejects ultimatum

Anti-government protestors gathered in Bangkok to call for current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s resignation. Observers estimate that between 100,000 and 250,000 have amassed outside Government House in northern Bangkok. The protestors, called ‘red-shirts’, view the current regime as a dictatorship and call on the government to announce democratic elections immediately.

The ‘red-shirts’ support ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed from office four years ago in a military coup and is credited with the creation of a heavily subsidised healthcare system and an effective crackdown on illegal drugs. Thaksin is living in self-imposed exile and spoke to the crowds by video on Sunday from an undisclosed location.

In response, PM Abhisit rejected the ultimatum, saying that “the protestors have demanded that I dissolve the house before midday today, but the coalition parties agree the demand cannot be met.” The prime minister also added that “elections must be held under common rules and genuine calm. We have to listen to other people’s voices, not just the protestors.” Abhisit has ordered the deployment of 50,000 soldiers and police to the capital with extra powers to impose curfews and restrict numbers at protests if necessary. So far, the protests have been peaceful.

Public frustration grows as al-Maliki pulls ahead in Iraqi elections

Early results released over the weekend have indicated an extremely tight race in the Iraqi parliamentary elections, with the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, in the lead. The early results account for 3 million votes of the total 12 million cast. Al-Maliki’s Shi’ite State of Law coalition current leads in 7 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, while the secularist coalition led by Ayad Allawi, Iraqiya, and the rival Shi’ite coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), follow close behind.

If no group emerges with a clear mandate—which seems unlikely based on early trends—it could take months of talks and coalition building to create the new government. Already the leading coalitions are considering possible alliances with other groups: both Iraqiya and the INA have met with minority Kurdish groups and a senior politician in al-Maliki’s coalition has suggested possible alliances with the Kurds and the INA.


However, public frustration is already growing at the lengthy process and delays in tallies. The elaborate procedures created by the United Nations and the United States to ensure election transparency have slowed counting in an effort to catch any irregularities. In the meantime, the delay could create public disillusionment with the process and give rival parties greater opportunity to interfere in the results.

Flourishing arms trade could spark regional arms race

Despite worldwide recession, the global arms trade has increased by 22% over the last five years. A recent report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) argues that the global arms race has accelerated in this time, particularly in South America and Southeast Asia. In South America, arms sales rose by 150%, including Venezuela’s $2.2 billion credit from Russia. Latin America expert Mark Bromley has stated, “We see evidence of competitive behaviour in arms acquisitions in South America,” which is ‘raising the spectre’ of a regional arms race.

Singapore became the first country in south east Asia to be included in the world’s top 10 arms importers, with significant increases in sales also seen in Indonesia and Malaysia. Siemon Wezeman warned that the “current wave of acquisitions could destabilise the region, jeopardising decades of peace.” Furthermore, the report warns of substantial deliveries to the middle east and Pakistan, which could have equally destabilising effects and encourage arms races in those regions as well.

Top Hamas leader arrested in West Bank

The Israeli army and Palestinian security forces in the West Bank arrested a top member of the Palestinian militant group Hamas over the weekend. Mahar Uda is considered a founding member of Hamas and has been on the Israeli wanted list since the end of the 1990s for his role in numerous suicide attacks against Israel.

The group was formed in 1987 as part of the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States, and the European Union, and is a bitter political rival of the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah party.

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