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Forbidden fruit

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Forbidden fruit
Khaled Amayreh

Israel is pushing ahead with settlements, defying Obama to punish Adam, prophesies Khaled Amayreh in occupied Jerusalem

In brazen defiance of American demands for freezing Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Israeli government has decided to build hundreds of additional settler units. On Monday, the government approved the expansion of the Adam colony, north of Jerusalem, despite repeated American and international calls for a total freeze of settlement expansion.

The approval, which okayed the building of at least 50 settler units, was made in coordination with settler leaders as well as the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. According to Defence Ministry sources, as many as 1,450 settler units were being planned in the Adam settlement alone. The Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot said that at least 3,200 settler units were under construction in the West Bank by the end of 2008.

This means that Israeli settlement expansion is still going at full speed irrespective of the Obama administration’s policy. The audacious decision to defy the Obama administration came hours before Defence Minister Ehud Barak was due to meet in New York with US Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell in an apparent effort to reach a "compromise formula" with the Obama administration. According to Israeli sources, the formula would allow Israel to keep up the building, though at a reduced pace.

Israeli commentators described the decision to build hundreds of fresh settler units as a "feeler" to test the American resolve vis-à-vis the settlement issue. "They wanted to see if the US is serious about halting the settlement expansion and to what extent the Obama administration will be willing to go to assert its resolve on this issue," says Roni Shakeid, a noted Israeli commentator.

Shakeid pointed out that the current Israeli government was trying to get the American government to grant Israel "a time-out" that would allow Israel to examine its choices. "Barak is now Netanyahu's left hand, and he is trying to reach a temporary settlement with Obama administration over the settlement freeze. At the same time, the hardcore rightwingers, people like Beny Begin and Moshe Yaalon are waiting to see what Barak is capable of doing to neutralise the crisis with Washington."

Prior to his departure for Washington, Barak suggested that a way out of the "current crisis with Washington" could take the form of incorporating the settlement issue into a wider context. "Within this framework, it is possible to have effective and practical negotiations with the Palestinians, and within this framework it is also possible to find an appropriate solution to the issue of settlement construction."

Meanwhile, it has been reported that Barak was likely to propose to Mitchell a certain freeze of settlement expansion for three months in return for receiving American consent for continued building in large Jewish settlements such as Maali Adomim and other colonies in and around East Jerusalem.

However, it seems that there is stiff opposition to this proposal from rightwing ministers who are arguing that a temporary freeze of settlement construction would create a precedent and might become permanent. According to Haaretz, three hawkish cabinet ministers (Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Yaalon, and Benny Begin) insisted that Israel must not propose any temporary freeze without "a similar and equal concession" by the Palestinian Authority and Arab states.

It is unclear what these ministers mean by "similar and equal concession" from the Palestinians. In the past, rightwing Israeli leaders had the audacity to urge the Israeli government to prevent Palestinians from building homes in their own towns and villages in order to maintain the "demographic balance".

It is uncertain though whether the Obama administration will enter into a confrontation with Israel over the settlements even if Israel keeps up settlement expansion against the wishes of the American government. So far, the Obama administration has given conflicting signals as to how it will deal with the Israeli refusal to terminate settlement expansion.

Last week, Mitchell refused to meet with Isaac Molho, an envoy dispatched by Netanyahu to the US to prepare for the American envoy's meeting with Barak. The seemingly calculated affront led to the cancellation of a planned meeting between Netanyahu and Mitchell in Paris.

On the other hand, the Israeli media has been quoting unnamed American officials as indicating that they don't rule out that Israel and the Obama administration will reach a "compromise" on the settlement freeze issue.

In the meantime, Palestinian Authority (PA) officials continued to insist that Israel must freeze all settlement expansion, including the so-called natural growth, as a precondition for any resumption of peace talks with Israel. This week, PA President Mahmoud Abbas was quoted as saying that the time for "prevarication and verbal juggling was over. We will not agree to renew peace talks with Israel unless Israel brings all settlement activities, including the so- called natural growth, to a complete halt."

Abbas's remarks came as a growing number of Palestinians were losing hope in the ability of the American administration to force Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. According to an opinion survey published this week, a solid majority of Palestinians said they were not optimistic about President Obama's chances of forcing Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

Earlier this week, Abbas received good news from the Middle East Quartet which urged Israel to stop all settlement activity to pave the way for the resumption of the peace process. The group, which includes the US, EU, Russia and the UN, made the call on the sidelines of the G8 meeting of foreign ministers in the Italian city of Triest Saturday.

The call also stressed that the freeze must cover all settlement constructions, inside and outside existing settlements. The G8's call was particularly disappointing for Israel since it was endorsed by some of Israel's staunchest allies such as Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.