This week America is absorbed with a series of progress reports on political benchmarks that were due to be met by the Iraqi Government. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a congressional investigative body in charge of evaluating the performance of government programs, just released its assessment that the Iraqi Government has only met three of the 18 political and security benchmarks set for it in June of last year.
In the same week, more depressing news has been coming out of Israel regarding the impressive lack of progress on yardsticks to which Israel was supposed to adhere in commitments it made to the US. In an exchange of letters with President Bush in April 2004, the Israeli government undertook to take action on removing the so-called unauthorized outposts established in the last years, to ease both the closure in the West Bank that strangles Palestinian economic life and the effects of the separation barrier being constructed by rerouting it.
This, in effect, was a reiteration of longstanding commitments that have still not been implemented. Occasionally, the issue is raised inside Israel in criticizing government inaction or, by the government itself, by way of reminding everyone that it has not forgotten and will momentarily be taking action. The moment, however, never comes.
The issue is scarcely ever raised in public by US officials - commitment, shmemitment. Don't expect any "progress reports" on this one, and certainly forget Congress saying anything about it.
There were developments on all three issues this week - outposts, checkpoints, and the separation barrier - and, on all fronts, foot-dragging seems to have become a fine art.
Special Envoy Blair will have a Herculean task getting any real traction for pushing concrete improvements on the ground. The case has been further strengthened for arguing that incrementalism cannot work, and that what's needed is a political solution: agreed borders and an end to occupation.
An Inter-Ministerial Committee on outposts was convened Sunday after a year's hiatus in meetings. Defense and Justice Ministry officials confirmed that existing outposts have been expanded in the past year. The Committee itself declared that its remit would be to establish rules for Israeli planning and building in the West Bank - which sounds ominous enough - and not to decide on evacuation of outposts. Strategic Affairs Minister Lieberman demanded that a parallel committee be established to examine illegal Arab building in the Negev, the Galilee and the West Bank.
But here's the rub - if the political gumption has been mustered to evacuate outposts, then you evacuate outposts. You don't convene a committee.
When the author of the definitive official report on this subject, Talia Sasson, was in DC as a guest of the New America Foundation and The Century Foundation in July, she discussed her frustration at the lack of action taken following her recommendations. She also made a key point that is often forgotten: since the beginning of the Oslo process, the establishment of new settlements was considered to be - how shall we say - in poor taste. Hey presto! Build on an outpost, the government turns a blind eye and you have what are in effect more than 100 new settlements!
Akiva Eldar reported in Haaretz that the Defense Ministry has been sitting for months on a plan - internally, professionally prepared - for dramatically reducing the number of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank. The authors of the plan were Brigadier General (ret.) Baruch Spiegel, who was in charge of coordinating the issue at the MoD [and my previous commanding officer!] and later Haggai Alon, an adviser to the former Defense Minister. Former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh was also involved and pushed for the plan's implementation - to no avail. In March, when Haggai Alon visited the US and spoke at several think-tanks (including the Center for American Progress, the Foundation for Middle East Peace, NAF and TCF) he outlined how crucial improvements in daily Palestinian life and easing of movement restrictions would be to both stabilizing security and undermining extremists. There are currently, according to the UN and World Bank, 546 obstacles to freedom of movement in the West Bank - it is the proximate cause of economic collapse.
Rather than pick up the plan and run with it, the new Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak has rejected a major IDF repositioning and is busy concocting his own plan for flying checkpoints (perhaps with flying pigs attached).
If it looks like foot-dragging and sounds like foot-dragging...
According to Haggai Alon, the story has caused quite a stir as the IDF and Shin Bet play pass the parcel of responsibility. Significantly, the story and existence of the plan has not been denied.
The Separation Barrier
Yesterday the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that a section of the fence, in the Bil'in area, should be relocated. For three years, the residents of Bil'in have protested their isolation as a result of the separation barrier. The location of the barrier was selected in order to protect an uninhabited, newly constructed Israeli settler neighborhood that constituted an illegal expansion of a settlement. Michael Sfarad, acting as counsel for the residents of Bil'in, told Ma'ariv, "The location of the fence was chosen not out of security considerations, but in order to expand the Modiin Illit settlement."
It is another example of the separation barrier's planners having misled the court, substituting settlement considerations for security considerations. Even those, or especially those who believe the barrier makes an important security contribution, should be frustrated that constant maximalism and settler influence has not only added to the negative impact of the construction on Palestinian life (and therefore breeding anger, which harms security, etc.), but also has delayed work on the fence itself!
Colonel (ret.) Shaul Arieli and attorney Michael Sfarad - both of whom have worked on this issue tirelessly (from a security and legal perspective) for the last years - will have a book out later this year on the entire story of the separation barrier, its planning, its impact, the Court's role, the settler role, the US role, and how it is almost a prism for the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The book will be in Hebrew, but we will be talking to Shaul at Prospects for Peace and look out for some interesting revelations.