Is A Settlement Freeze Really A ‘Pre-Condition’?

Our guest blogger is David Halperin, assistant director of Israel Policy Forum.

With Sunday’s deadline for Israel’s ten-month settlement moratorium fast approaching, both sides are preparing for the blame game should the talks break down. One of the key buzz words being thrown about this week is “precondition.” As in, ‘the Palestinians should not be setting a precondition that Israel continue the settlement freeze in order to keep the talks going.’ In his conference call with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the audience of Jewish leaders “We got rid of the preconditions before the talks. We can’t reintroduce them five minutes after the talks begin.” In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon echoed the sentiment, stating: “Israel will not accept an all or nothing approach, or any ultimatums or any preconditions.” (Of course, in the same interview, Ayalon effectively stated a precondition of his own, saying: “What I say is that if the Palestinians are not willing to talk about two states for two peoples, let alone a Jewish state for Israel, then there’s nothing to talk about.”) The precondition message has reached Capitol Hill, where one staffer told Foreign Policy, “Many Capitol Hill office[s] see Abbas quitting the talks over the settlements as him using the same issue he was clinging to when trying to set preconditions for the talks in the first place.” But certainly when it comes to Hamas, Israel doesn’t think preconditions should be discarded. Israel’s — and the Quartet’s — preconditions for speaking with Hamas, require that it 1) renounce violence 2) accept previous agreements and 3) recognize Israel’s right to exist are currently an unshakeable aspect of Israel’s policy. To note, the PA led by Mahmoud Abbas has, of course, done all three. When it comes to Syria, Israelis have been mixed on the idea of preconditions. The previous government led by Ehud Olmert demanded Syria cut ties to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran before direct talks would begin. However, to his credit, Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that Israel is prepared to hold negotiations without preconditions with the Syrians, and Shimon Peres underscored the point in his remarks to the United Nations General Assembly. We may soon see whether actions match rhetoric in this regard. But whether or not preconditions are helpful — or harmful — to peace processes is one question to be considered. What is not a question is that a settlement freeze is not a precondition — it’s an Israeli obligation. The Roadmap states:

In Phase I, the Palestinians immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence according to the steps outlined below; such action should be accompanied by supportive measures undertaken by Israel. Palestinians and Israelis resume security cooperation based on the Tenet work plan to end violence, terrorism, and incitement through restructured and effective Palestinian security services. Palestinians undertake comprehensive political reform in preparation for statehood, including drafting a Palestinian constitution, and free, fair and open elections upon the basis of those measures. Israel takes all necessary steps to help normalize Palestinian life. Israel withdraws from Palestinian areas occupied from September 28, 2000 and the two sides restore the status quo that existed at that time, as security performance and cooperation progress. Israel also freezes all settlement activity, consistent with the Mitchell report.

The Palestinian efforts to reform their governmental infrastructure, curb terrorism, and strengthen Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation are well documented. They have even been hailed by Israelis.  Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad told an audience of Jewish leaders this week that, while they have made progress on their obligation, more needed to be done, particularly in curbing incitement. “I don’t think one can ever say that we have done everything that could possibly be done… but we are trying,” Fayyad said. “Incitement is a problem and we see it as such.” The Israeli efforts have also been promising. Israel has enabled the Palestinian security apparatus to function, has eliminated a number of roadblocks and checkpoints, helping to create conditions for significant economic growth in the West Bank.


But Israel’s obligations scorecard has one glaring omission: “freez(ing) all settlement activity consistent with the Mitchell Report.” The Mitchell Report, drafted in 2001 by the current Special Envoy for Middle East for the previous Administration states: “The GOI [Government of Israel] should freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.” The U.S. tried to get Israel to agree to this obligation at the onset of the Obama administration. Netanyahu refused, tensions emerged, and peace talks stalled. Now, the US is asking for an extension of the ten-month moratorium that Israel instituted as a compromise. Even less, the United States has signaled it would support a formula that comes short of a continuation of the partial freeze already in place. The Palestinians now say that they too would be willing to compromise on the continuation of the not-so-full-freeze, freeze. Recent reports indicating that the United States is working with the parties to develop such a formula provide some hope that a deal can be reached at the last moment.  It’s important to understand that Israel is being asked only to continue a portion of the step it has taken, which only partially meets its obligation under the Roadmap. Yet is claiming that its refusal to do so — and the Palestinians’ subsequently crying foul — amounts to the Palestinians presenting an unnecessary precondition which harms the potential for peace. Or, in other words, the games have begun. Whether they’ll continue past the weekend is less clear.

For more details on the political issues at play in these negotiations, please see Matt Duss’ and my new report, Navigating Political Currents to Achieve Middle East Peace.