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Middle East Peace Report- February 1, 2010

Vol. 11, Issue 17

Diplomatic Stagnation is Deadly, Part I & II, Jerusalem Trends, What Freeze?, Don't Neglect Gaza, New Envoy to Syria?, Settler 'Terrorism,' Intimidating Israeli Civil Society

Diplomatic Stagnation is Deadly: Two weeks after he told Time Magazine that his administration underestimated America's ability to get Israelis and Palestinians to take steps towards peace, Israelis are still expressing concern that the US will not be aggressive enough in its pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak reportedly said that putting the peace process on hold until all sides are ready is very risky. "A deadlock will lead to another round of violence that will serve Hamas," he predicted.
Barak's comments echoed a column by Aluf Benn from Wednesday's Haaretz: "One can understand the frustration that Obama must feel over the stubbornness, foot-dragging and political score-settling by both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But... this is about preventing war. For America to abandon its efforts would increase the danger of a regional conflagration at a time when the air is already becoming saturated with flammable vapors."
"Signs indicative of an impending explosion are coming from every side," Benn adds, "from Iran, Lebanon, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and also Israel, which is on its own against them all... In this situation, leaving the regional players to their own devices, imprisoned in their unceasing desire to settle accounts with their rivals, increases the risk of war." (Haaretz, 1/27/09; Jerusalem Post, 1/29/10)
Diplomatic Stagnation is Deadly, Part II: Israelis are not the only ones concerned about the risk Israel would face if the United States were not sufficiently engaged in advancing peace. The editorial pages in the American Jewish press last week also highlighted this concern.
While noting that "the prospects for breakthroughs are slim," the conservative-leaning New York Jewish Week editorialized that "it is also true that any sign America is throwing in the towel can only lead to new tensions and violence. This country can't impose peace on reluctant participants, but neither can it be seen as walking away from a conflict that has such huge implications for U.S. interests around the world."
The New York Jewish Week editorial also argued that it would be a mistake for the Obama administration "to bow out of active peacemaking and leave Israel alone."
"Without U.S. involvement and leadership, the danger of new, even deadlier violence grows by the day," the New York Jewish Week predicted.
A similar sentiment was penned by syndicated columnist Douglas Bloomfield. He wrote Friday that "in the Middle East, motion without movement is a prescription for new violence." (New York Jewish Week, 1/26/10; Washington Jewish Week, 1/29/10)
Jerusalem Trends: The latest edition of the Jerusalem Statistical Yearbook shows a significant reduction of the city's Jewish majority in relation to its Palestinian population. The report, published by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, a Jerusalem-based think tank, also shows that the city's population is significantly younger and poorer than the population of other Israeli cities. It also showed that Jerusalem's Jewish population is much more religious than that of other Israeli towns.
The report, released last month, covers the years 2007-2008. At the end of 2008, the report says, the population of Jerusalem was 763,000, of which 495,000 were Jewish and 268,000 were Palestinians. That means that Jews were about 65% of the city's population (compared to 74% in 1967, when East Jerusalem was captured by Israel, and 72% in 1980).
According to the report, most Jerusalemites (60%) - both Israelis and Palestinians - live in East Jerusalem. Of these 444,900 Jerusalemites, roughly 43% reside in neighborhoods that are predominantly Jewish (192,100) and make up 39% of the city's total Jewish population.
As in previous years, the 2007 rate of growth of Palestinian Jerusalemites continued to outpace Jewish population growth in the city: 3.2% for Palestinians and 1.3% for Jews. During the forty years of Israel's control over East Jerusalem, the Jewish population in the city grew by 146% (slightly less than the 161% overall growth rate in Israel), while its Palestinian population grew by a whopping 269%, mainly because of a higher natural growth rate. Immigration was almost negligible as a factor in the city's population growth in 2007. Only 2,459 Jewish immigrants settled in Jerusalem in 2007 and only 11,200 new residents moved to Jerusalem from other localities in Israel, while 17,600 moved from Jerusalem to other localities in Israel, a net negative migration balance of 6,400.
Jerusalem's Jewish population profile is much more religious than other large towns in Israel. Only 23% of Jerusalemite Jews define themselves as secular (compared with 44% nationally).
While Jerusalem's population is much poorer than Israel's overall population, a stark difference between Jews and Palestinians in Jerusalem is the level of poverty. In 2007, 67% of the families and 74% of the children in Jerusalem's Palestinian population were living below the poverty line, compared with 23% of the families and 48% of the children in the Jewish population (compared to 20% of the families and 34% of the children in all of Israel).
The Statistical Yearbook is based on data from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics and on Jerusalem Municipality data. (Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, January 2010)
What Freeze? "Judging by the scene in [the settlement of] Beit Hagai, it would appear that there is no construction freeze in the settlements," opened an article in today's Makor Rishon-Hatzofe about a cornerstone-laying ceremony for an expansion of the settlement attended by Israeli Cabinet Minister Benny Begin.
"We are building and we will build in the Land of Israel," Begin said during the ceremony. "Today there are 300,000 [Israeli] residents in Judea and Samaria and there will be tens of thousands more...The State of Israel and the people of Israel have interests in Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem that in no way are solely security [interests] but, rather, [are interests] based on an ancient connection."
Also speaking during the ceremony, Rabbi Eliezer Waldman - who leads a seminary in the settlement of Kiryat Arba - defied the legitimacy of an Israeli government decision to regulate construction in settlements. "There is no such thing as 'construction is forbidden,'" he said. "The Torah commands us to do that in the Land of Israel, as does Zionism and fidelity to our homeland."
The expansion of this settlement is reportedly exempt from the settlement construction moratorium on the grounds that foundations for the houses were poured before the moratorium began.
Settlers also celebrated progress towards the establishment of a new settlement this weekend after IDF Colonel Eran Makov announced that the Israeli military intends to place a military outpost at Shdema, the site of a former IDF base near Bethlehem.
Local settler leader Shaul Goldstein welcomed the announcement. "Placing an outpost at Shdema is a sign that Shdema will, with God's help, become a thriving community - and this is happening..."
On Friday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Israel will retain control of the large West Bank settlement of Ariel. "Here is where our forefathers dwelled and here is where we will stay and build," the prime minister said. "We want to strengthen the peace and co-existence with our neighbors but this will not stop us from continuing with our lives here, where we'll continue to plant trees and to build."
Settlers Council Chairman Danny Dayan captured the hypocrisy in the Israeli government's approach to settlements. "These are days of perplexity and confusion," he told Makor Rishon-Hatzofe. "On the one hand, the prime minister plants a tree in Ariel and the Etzion Bloc while, on the other, they are trying to tempt Abu Mazen to enter into negotiations."
Dayan left no doubt as to what the settlers will do, however: "It is precisely in times as these that it is our role to send a clear message of complete faith in the justice of our path. We will not stop building in Judea and Samaria." (Makor Rishon-Hatzofe, 2/1/10; Israel Army Radio, 1/31/10; Arutz7, 1/31/10; Haaretz, 1/31/10)
Don't Neglect Gaza: Fifty-four members of Congress wrote to President Barack Obama last week urging him to "press for immediate relief for the citizens of Gaza as an urgent component of your broader Middle East peace efforts."
The letter enjoyed the backing of a wide array of American organizations, including Americans for Peace Now.
"The humanitarian and political consequences of a continued near-blockade would be disastrous," the representatives wrote. "Easing the blockade on Gaza will not only improve the conditions on the ground for Gaza's civilian population, but will also undermine the tunnel economy which has strengthened Hamas... Most importantly, lifting these restrictions will give civilians in Gaza a tangible sense that diplomacy can be an effective tool for bettering their conditions."
The representatives made clear that they are concerned about both Israelis and Palestinians: "We also sympathize deeply with the people of southern Israel who have suffered from abhorrent rocket and mortar attacks. We recognize that the Israeli government has imposed restrictions on Gaza out of a legitimate and keenly felt fear of continued terrorist action by Hamas and other militant groups. This concern must be addressed without resulting in the de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip. Truly, fulfilling the needs of civilians in Israel and Gaza are mutually reinforcing goals." (Haaretz, 1/28/10; APN, 12/16/10)
New Envoy to Syria? The Obama administration may soon fill the post of Ambassador to Syria, according to media reports.
The post has been empty since the Bush administration recalled the ambassador following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.
Robert Ford, who currently serves as America's deputy ambassador to Iraq, is expected to be named to the post. Ford previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Algeria from 2006 to 2008.
American envoy George Mitchell reportedly discussed the new ambassador in a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad last week.
"A decision was made last year to return an Ambassador to Syria and this is a concrete example of the administration's commitment to use our tools, including dialogue, to address our concerns," an American official told CBS news.
"The decision reflects recognition of the importance of Syria's role in the region and we hope that it will play constructive efforts to promote peace and stability in the region," the official added.  (CBS, 1/30/10; Haaretz, 1/30/10; Politico, 1/30/10)
Settler 'Terrorism:' A United Nations report documented 16 incidents of clashes between settlers and Palestinians last week.
The most dramatic of the incidents occurred in the village of Beitillu following the destruction - by Israeli law-enforcement officials - of a structure built by settlers in violation of Israeli law. Two Palestinians and three settlers were injured by stones. One house and two vehicles were damaged.
The UN reported that the rioting in the Palestinian villages stemmed from the "price tag" strategy employed by settlers whereby they respond to Israeli attempts to dismantle settlement outposts with attacks on Palestinians.
In a lead editorial, the Israeli Haaretz newspaper condemned the settler-initiated violence in the strongest possible terms: "There is no way to describe the West Bank settlers' attack on the Palestinian village of Bitilu but as a well-planned terror attack. The settlers' 'military' organization and violent resistance... are no different from the activities of other terrorist organizations. This includes the incitement, ranting and raving preceding the act of vengeance on Bitilu, the attempt to set a house on fire, the injuring of villagers with stones, and the threat to continue these violent tactics."
"These are not unusual acts," the editorial notes. "Israel Defense Forces officers report a significant increase in the number of settler attacks on Arab villages and communities following the decision to freeze construction in the settlements... The government is not permitted to protect these offenders and must treat their actions as acts of terror, unless it wants to be seen as their partner." (OCHA, 1/26/10; Haaretz, 1/28/10)
Intimidating Israeli Civil Society: A campaign is underway to discredit the New Israel Fund (NIF), which supports human-rights and civil-society groups in Israel.
Based on a report by a right-wing group, Maariv reported Friday that NIF-funded organizations were a major source of information in the Goldstone Report. On Saturday night, right-wing demonstrators appeared outside the home of Naomi Chazan, NIF's president and a former deputy speaker of the Knesset. The protesters were reportedly dressed as Hamas members carrying signs "thanking" Chazan and the NIF. Newspaper ads showed Chazan with a horn on her head.
Americans for Peace Now and the Israeli Peace Now movement condemned this smear campaign. In a rare joint statement the two groups wrote that the "NIF grantees that are quoted in the UN report on Operation Cast Lead were performing their duty as Israeli human rights organizations by monitoring and reporting on controversial policies of their government and their military. Such human rights organizations are an integral part of any vibrant democracy and as such, they are an integral - and vital - part of Israel's civil society."
The statement added: "The New Israel Fund is an asset to Israel's democracy, as are its grantee organizations. Attempts to silence them should not be tolerated by the Israeli public and by friends of a free and democratic Israel worldwide." (APN, 2/1/10; Ma'ariv, 1/29/10; Forward, 1/31/10)