Netanyahu’s Response to UNESCO’s Embrace of the Palestinians: Expand the Settlements

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A construction worker at a site of a new housing unit in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, November 2, 2011. Israel announced late Tuesday that it has ordered accelerated construction of 2,000 new apartments for Israelis in east Jerusalem (Photo: Abir Sultan / EPA)


The government of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made its answer to Palestinian membership in UNESCO, and it’s an interesting one:  Accelerating construction in the West Bank settlements.

Construction of some 2,000 housing units will be hastened to bring more Israelis onto Palestinian land captured by Israel in the 1967 war, the prime minister’s office announced a day after the United Nations cultural organization voted overwhelmingly to admit Palestine, and in so doing add momentum to the pending Palestinian bid for UN membership.  Netanyahu’s inner cabinet also voted to withhold about $100 million that Israel owes the Palestinian Authority in customs receipts the Jewish State collects on its behalf. That could translate to missed paychecks for PA employees on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, and the widespread grumbling would make governing more difficult for PA president Mahmoud Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad. Still, it’s the settlement decision that drew headlines in Israel – and criticism.

The opposition complained that Netanyahu’s move serves to further isolate Israel in a diplomatic battle for international public opinion.  The settlements may be the one thing the whole world agrees Israel has no right doing; even the United States regards them as illegal under international law, and a (literally) concrete impediment to negotiating a two-state solution. The more than 120 settlements inside the West Bank are home to more than 300,000 Israelis already; the number climbs to 500,000 if you include the Jewish neighborhoods built since 1967 in East Jerusalem areas that Israel says it has annexed.

“Israel is isolating itself instead of enlisting the world to support its goals,” the opposition Kadima party said in a statement. “While the Palestinians make achievements in the world, Israel responds by pushing it away and responds to political defeat with political folly.”

Netanyahu’s office made the point that the new units would all be built in settlement “blocs” close to the 1967 border, and so likely to be incorporated on the Israeli side of any border negotiated with the Palestinians. But critics said Tuesday’s announcement not only makes negotiations less likely – Abbas spokesmen lambasted the move — it also endangers the “consensus” that those blocs will end up in Israel. (In fact, no such consensus exists for one of them, the massive Maale Adumim, which effectively splits the West Bank in half.)  “Israel is going to lose even those areas that are at the heart of the consensus because the Netanyahu government is acting irresponsibly in the international arena,” Labor Party lawmaker Yitzhak Herzog was quoted as saying in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

While Netanyahu played to his base, the Palestinians moved to build on their global success.  Abbas aides said their own response to Monday’s lopsided 107-14 vote at UNESCO was to head back for more: The Palestinians say they are exploring applications to join another 16 international organizations affiliated with the UN. The list includes the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Bank and perhaps even the International Criminal Court, a very sore point for Israel, because the court appears to regard the West Bank settlements as a violation of the laws of war.

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