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Did Israel’s reaction play into Abbas’ hands?

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Last week’s According to Reports looked at Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Nov. 29 UN gambit and Israel’s reaction. It ended on a note about the National Post’s Jonathan Kay’s Nov. 30 rebuke to Israel regarding its settlement policy.

Let us recall: in his UN address Abbas repeatedly referred to Israeli settlements as the roadblock to a two-state solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This not only reinforced the longstanding Palestinian narrative, it also played into the widely held assumption in the West that many of those generally sympathetic to Israel increasingly show signs of sharing.

This column has frequently argued (especially since the collapse of the Annapolis talks in 2008 when Abbas did not reply to Israel’s proposal for a viable, contiguous Palestinian state) that the issue of settlements is complicated but resolvable.

The outline of a deal is well-known to both sides: leaving the major settlement blocs around Jerusalem and the Jewish neighbourhoods of eastern Jerusalem in Israel’s hands and giving the Palestinians land trades.

The real impediment to a deal lies elsewhere, in the Palestinians’ persistent rejection of Jewish claims to Jerusalem and their insistence on the principle of the “right of return” to Israel. In short, the Palestinian rejection of Israel as the Jewish state.

Nonetheless, since settlements are concrete and visible, they consistently attract media attention while such conceptually abstract issues as Palestinian rejectionism receive almost no attention at all. Media, especially television, rely on optics and emotional reactions and abhor complexity.

Accordingly, anything that brings a focus on settlements reinforces the popular perception that settlements are indeed the stumbling block to a genuine two-state peace agreement that the Palestinians are anxious to accept.

So, the Israeli government announcement that, in response to Abbas’ unilateral move at the UN, it intended to build 3,000 housing units including in the highly sensitive zone (“E1”) in the West Bank, was seen in the international community, including U.S., as extremely provocative.

Media reaction was swift in rebuking Israel. Although its editorial stand had been very supportive of Israel during its recent war against Hamas’ missiles, and when Abbas skirted negotiations by appealing instead to the UN, the Globe and Mail took strong exception in its Dec. 4 editorial to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration on settlement growth.

As the Globe wrote: “When the Palestinian Authority took unilateral action and sought increased status at the United Nations, Canada vigorously denounced the move as a blow to the peace process… Now Israel has announced plans to build homes in controversial settlement on occupied land, a move which, if carried out, threatens to do far more damage to the process.”

Despite Netanyahu’s assurances (made once again on Dec. 5 in an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt) that settlement growth does not contradict Israel’s commitment to a two-state agreement, there’s growing skepticism about this, most worryingly by those who have been sympathetic to Israel and have until now given it the benefit of the doubt.

In Israel, several mainstream Israeli journalists and analysts recognize the public relations predicament facing Netanyahu and Israel on this subject.

To mention these issues, it needs to be emphasized, is not to dispute the rights of Jews to live in areas of their historical homeland. Rather, it’s to raise valid discussion about the political wisdom of pursuing those rights under any circumstances.

David Horovitz, the highly respected editor of The Times of Israel, argued, in his Dec. 3 column, that the Israeli government announcement of an additional 3,000 housing units ”actually undermines the claims of those who regard West Bank settlement as an essential repopulation of historic Jewish territory, and suggests rather that settlement is a tool with which to hammer away relentlessly and spitefully at Palestinian aspirations for statehood.”

This, Horovitz claims, only plays into Abbas’ desire to “depict Israel as the recalcitrant player, the rejectionist,” when the truth is the other way around.

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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