The Middle East Channel

The lesser known settlement freeze deal

Proximity talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership have just begun. It took Barack Obama's administration almost 15 months to obtain the consent of the parties to talk to each other indirectly, through George Mitchell's team. For the 19-year-old peace process (if counted from the Madrid summit) it is doubtful whether this new phase deserves even the modest "small step" label.

Small as it is, securing the diplomatic and political climate which enabled the proximity talks was not an easy step to achieve. It required the administration to put considerable pressure on the parties and, in the case of the demand from the Israeli government to freeze construction in West Bank settlements, some unprecedented arm-twisting. This explains why, though holed like Swiss cheese and scattered with countless inexplicable exceptions, the settlements construction moratorium is seen and presented by the administration as its biggest success so far.

Almost five months after the declaration of the moratorium, it is now clear: The Netanyahu-Barak government is compensating the settlers generously for introducing this (partial) construction freeze. The reward is huge and expensive, and it is paid in the most precious currency Israeli leaders have: outpost legalization and planning approval. The settlers, ideological and patient in a manner that only messianic communities are, understand that while the construction moratorium is temporary, legalization of outposts and approval of construction plans will have long-term effects. They see the attraction in this barter for the long run and act accordingly. They play their role in the freeze game: They demonstrate against it, they send their young hooligans to clash with the Israeli army and police, they violate it publicly, but they do not declare the current government as their enemy, as they did when late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared a narrower construction moratorium -- one that applied only to state-funded construction in settlements. The planning-and-outpost-legalization-for-temporary-moratorium deal has never been announced publicly or ever officially confirmed. We may only infer its existence by reviewing the evidence revealed in the last five months. And the evidence is ample and compelling:

First, in three Israeli High Court petitions brought by Palestinian landowners, as well as Israeli human rights organizations and peace groups, demanding to enforce demolition orders issued against illegal houses built in four outposts, the government has altered its position significantly after the moratorium was declared. While its pre-moratorium position was that the demolition orders must indeed be carried out but that the court should leave it to the government to choose the timing, its post-moratorium position was that a survey of property rights should be carried out so that it may consider a retroactive legalization of the illegal houses. This new position was presented in the cases of Derech Ha'avot, Rechelim, Haresha, and Hayovel -- all outposts built illegally (even by Israel's own definition of what constitutes illegality in the occupied territories) and without official governmental approval.

Secondly, in about a dozen other petitions pending in the Israeli High Court of Justice, where demolition orders against illegal construction on private Palestinian land are at stake, and therefore legalization of those buildings is not an option, the government also made a significant position change. Its pre-moratorium position was that demolitions should be carried out according to prioritization that is to yet be set. It took the government more than three years to present before the High Court the demolition enforcement priority principles it adopted. However, shortly afterward, the moratorium was declared and the government announced that during the moratorium period the priority document is suspended. Why? Because "all energy, resources and manpower is dedicated to the enforcement of the moratorium." Making sure the settlers do not build in violation of the moratorium, the government told the High Court, makes it impossible for us to deal with old illegal construction.

And finally, since the construction freeze was introduced, several major neighborhood plans for settlement where either approved or advanced in the relevant planning committees. Those plans include together thousands of housing units in extremely sensitive places, and some of them were pending for years while consecutive governments avoided advancing them. When negotiating the construction freeze, the U.S. administration did not listen to Israeli voices who repeatedly warned of the shortcomings in a construction freeze that did not include a planning freeze. The result, as anticipated, is severe, and its first signal arrived less than a week after the moratorium was declared: The West Bank planning committee approved a plan for a new neighborhood of 360 housing units in the Talmon settlement, deep in the West Bank. The plan retroactively Koshered 60 illegal houses already built and allowed the erection of hundreds of new ones. The plan was pending for years and the settlers have failed time and again to have it approved. In the same way other plans were advanced since the moratorium was declared, most of them far from the 1967 line and others in East Jerusalem.

The settlers are preparing for the day after the construction freeze; the day of the de-freeze. And when that day comes, they are certain a construction boom of significant scale will commence. Unfortunately, unless something dramatically changes, the freeze might be seen in retrospect as a bad deal for the peace process.

Michael Sfard is an Israeli human rights lawyer and is litigating the cases mentioned in the article.

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The Middle East Channel

Gold stones, glass houses

The Israeli government has it in for Richard Goldstone. Ever since Goldstone, a Jewish South African judge, issued a report in September charging Israel (and Hamas) with war crimes during the January 2009 invasion of Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has attacked him -- and his report -- as a grave threat to Israel's legitimacy.

On Thursday, leading Israeli government officials escalated their campaign against Goldstone, accusing him of sending 28 black South Africans to their deaths while serving as a judge during the apartheid years.

"The judge who sentenced black people to death … is a man of double standards," Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin proclaimed. "Such a person should not be allowed to lecture a democratic state defending itself against terrorists." Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon insisted, "This so-called respected judge is using this report in order to atone for his sins," likening Goldstone's statement that he was forced to uphold the laws of an unjust regime to "explanations we heard in Nazi Germany after World War II."

And the newspaper Yediot Ahronoth declared breathlessly -- with nods of approval from Jeffrey Goldberg and Jonathan Chait -- that "the man who authored the Goldstone report criticizing the IDF's actions during Operation Cast Lead took an active part in the racist policies of one of the cruelest regimes of the 20th century."

So did Israel's government.

Goldstone's apartheid-era judicial rulings are undoubtedly a blot on his record, but his critics never mention the crucial part he played in shepherding South Africa through its democratic transition and warding off violent threats to a peaceful transfer of power -- a role that led Nelson Mandela to embrace him and appoint him to the country's highest court.

More importantly, Ayalon's and Rivlin's moralism conveniently ignores Israel's history of arming the apartheid regime from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s. By serving as South Africa's primary and most reliable arms supplier during a period of violent internal repression and external aggression, Israel's government did far more to aid the apartheid regime than Goldstone ever did.

The Israel-South Africa alliance began in earnest in April 1975 when then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres signed a secret security pact with his South African counterpart, P.W. Botha. Within months, the two countries were doing a brisk trade, closing arms deals totaling almost $200 million; Peres even offered to sell Pretoria nuclear-capable Jericho missiles. By 1979, South Africa had become the Israeli defense industry's single largest customer, accounting for 35 percent of military exports and dwarfing other clients such as Argentina, Chile, Singapore, and Zaire.

High-level exchanges of military personnel soon followed. South Africans joined the Israeli chief of staff in March 1979 for the top-secret test of a new missile system. During Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Israeli army took South African Defense Force chief Constand Viljoen and his colleagues to the front lines, and Viljoen routinely flew visiting Israeli military advisors and embassy attachés to the battlefield in Angola where his troops were battling Angolan and Cuban forces.

There was nuclear cooperation, too: South Africa provided Israel with yellowcake uranium while dozens of Israelis came to South Africa in 1984 with code names and cover stories to work on Pretoria's nuclear missile program at South Africa's secret Overberg testing range. By this time, South Africa's alternative sources for arms had largely dried up because the United States and European countries had begun abiding by the U.N. arms embargo; Israel unapologetically continued to violate it.

The blatant hypocrisy of the latest attack on Goldstone is nothing new. In November 1986, Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel's U.N. ambassador, gave a stirring speech to the General Assembly denouncing apartheid and insisting that "Arab oil producers provide the umbilical cord that nourishes the apartheid regime." (Never mind that Israel remained absent from the 1980 U.N. vote to impose an oil embargo on South Africa in deference to its friends in Pretoria.)

Netanyahu was right that Arab and Iranian oil was flowing through middlemen to the apartheid regime, but he categorically denied Israel's extensive military and trade ties with South Africa, calling charges of lucrative arms sales "flat nonsense" and accusing his critics of trying "to defame Israel."

In fact, Israel was profiting handsomely from selling weapons to Pretoria at the time. Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman estimated that the two countries did $400 mllion to $800 million of business in the arms sector in 1986. According to declassified South African documents, the figure was likely even greater: A single contract for modernization of South African fighter jets in the mid-1980s amounted to "approximately $2 billion," and  arms sales in 1988 -- one year after Israel imposed sanctions against the apartheid regime -- exceeded $1.5 billion. As the former head of the South African Air Force Jan van Loggerenberg told me bluntly: "Israel was probably our only avenue in the 1980s."

Declassified South African arms-procurement figures (which exclude lucrative cooperative ventures and shared financing arrangements) reveal the full extent of Netanyahu's lie. The "independent IMF figures" he cited (which excluded diamonds and arms) suggested trade was a minuscule $100 million annually. It was actually between five to 10 times that amount -- depending on the year -- making the apartheid regime Israel's second- or third-largest trading partner after the United States. Not all of the weapons Israel sold were used in external wars, and there is no denying that Israeli arms helped prolong the rule of an immoral and racist regime.

Before casting stones from their glass house, Ayalon, Rivlin, and Israeli journalists would do well to examine -- and acknowledge -- their government's own shameful history of collaboration with the apartheid regime.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs and author of The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa.

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