Back to the future with Netanyahu’s subterfuge

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Moti Milrod/MaanImages)

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepared for his first meeting with US President Barack Obama earlier this week, preliminary construction began on the Maskiot settlement in the Jordan Valley, which forms the Eastern Bantu of the occupied West Bank. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, it will be Israel’s first new settlement in the northern West Bank in 27 years.

More accurately, Maskiot was established as an army brigade encampment in 1982, abandoned in the late 1990s, reconstituted as a army preparatory school in 2005, and promised to former residents of an “illegal” Gaza settlement, Shirat Hayam, in 2006. That plan to settle 30 families roughly 15 kilometers east of the Green Line — the internationally-recognized boundary between Israel and the West Bank — was abandoned under American pressure in 2007 and resurrected in the final months of the moribund Bush presidency. Obviously, neither the roughly 50,000 Palestinians of the Jordan Valley nor their listless leaders in Ramallah play any role in this kabuki dance between the Israeli and American governments.

The Obama administration will halt construction of Maskiot once more, likely in exchange for its acquiescence to the further (and nearly complete) Judaization of Jerusalem. Specifically, Netanyahu wants to complete partition of the Palestinian West Bank into northern and southern Bantus by completing development of the “East 1” or E1 area between Jerusalem and the mega-settlement of Maale Adumim. Israel first authorized development in this area in March 1997, during Netanyahu’s first premiership. It opened a massive new police headquarters for the West Bank in E1 this month, intends to build 3,500 housing units for settlers in this area of less than five square miles, and has spent more than NIS 120 million ($30 million) on a segregated road that will connect E1 to Jerusalem for Jews, and shuttle Palestinian Arabs between their northern and southern Bantus without desecrating the holy city with their presence.

Let us remember that Netanyahu orchestrated a similar provocation early in his first premiership to advance his geopolitical agenda. On 24 September 1996, towards the end of protracted negotiations over the Hebron Agreement, Netanyahu ordered that a gate to the Western Wall tunnel be opened along the Via Dolorosa, blasted through the grounds of the Umariya elementary school (incidentally, my father’s primary school). As a result, tourists who once had to retrace their steps to exit the tunnel now exit onto the Via Dolorosa and are escorted by armed Israeli soldiers through the Old City’s Muslim quarter (think of it as a quotidian version of the annual Jerusalem Day celebrations that flaunt Israeli “liberation and reunification” of the city by parading through Arab Jerusalem and dancing atop the ruins of the Moroccan quarter in the Western Wall plaza).

Coming on the heels a Palestinian Authority (PA) crackdown on Hamas and reinforcing the view that the PA was doing its occupier’s bidding for nothing in return, the “tunnel riots” that ignited throughout Palestinian cities the day after Netanyahu’s decision left 90 Palestinians and 19 Israeli soldiers dead. The PA’s guns, which were to be trained exclusively on other Palestinians, were for the first time turned on the occupier. It prompted the White House to call an “emergency peace summit” for 1 October 1996, from which a supine Yasser Arafat came away promising to quash the Palestinian uprising without any Israeli concessions on the tunnel, Jerusalem or Hebron.

After obtaining impunity from Washington for his deed, Netanyahu told Nightline’s Ted Koppel that Israel merely “broke a 20-centimeter [wall]” and “ma[d]e a tunnel that has been there for 2,000 years open in one end” (Koppel, for his part, chastised Netanyahu’s decision to open “[a] tunnel which Shamir didn’t open, a tunnel which Rabin didn’t open, a tunnel which Peres didn’t open, precisely because all the experts told them, ‘That’s going to be problematic’ ”). Indeed, Netanyahu and the defense establishment were surprised by the blowback and the death toll. But, as Palestinian political scientist Saleh Abdel Jawad has argued, the tunnel riots showed Israel that it could force the PA security forces to defend Palestinians. When the already-stalled political process inevitably yielded to confrontation, the involvement of PA security forces would allow Israel to portray the conflict as one between two armies (unlike the soldier-against-civilian dynamic of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising), and use its overwhelming military force to destroy the PA and the political track.

It should come as no surprise that Netanyahu’s underhanded tactics have not changed; neither has his outmoded position on the central question of Palestinian self-determination, as the following exchange from his October 1996 Nightline interview attests:

Koppel: [Y]ou’re talking about the Palestinians controlling the cities, the towns, the villages, and the Israelis, in effect, controlling everything in between.

Netanyahu: No, that’s not necessarily what I have in mind. [Interruption] I have a certain conception that basically says that at the close of the 20th century, we have to look for different models than the one of military subjugation, on the one hand, and absolute unlimited self-determination on the other hand. You have a lot of places in the world where nationalities are embedded in other nationalities, and you don’t have to pry each apart to create out of a system of, say, 180 states, 380 states, each with their own army, their own weapons, their own, God forbid, non-conventional weapons. I think other models are possible, and one such model allows a national group to run its own affairs, run its lives, and allows the other to at least have control over the security aspects that determine whether peace will hold. It’s got to be applicable in a lot of places; in the former Soviet republics, in parts of Eastern Europe, soon maybe parts of Western Europe. I think we need a new model, and we may have to develop it as we move to the final settlement. But that remains ahead of us.

Netanyahu knows that the Palestinians will eventually revolt against Israel’s efforts to embed itself further into Arab Jerusalem and the surrounding areas of the West Bank. If the Obama administration understands that the time for a negotiated settlement shrinks with the open land in the E1 corridor, it will not take Netanyahu’s bait and make clear the consequences of his subterfuge.

Omar Yousef Shehabi is an attorney living in Los Angeles.