Early last week [Dec. 2], it seemed as though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to promote construction in the disputed E1 area in the West Bank would carry the diplomatic agenda to the top of the campaign for the general election slated for Jan. 22, 2013.
The summoning of Israel's ambassadors to the European capitals in the wake of the decision to approve the construction of some 3,200 housing units between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim took place only after those countries rejected Israel's demand that they vote against the admission of Palestine as a nonmember observer state of the UN. The parties to the left of the right-wing Likud Party as well as some political pundits portrayed Germany's decision to abstain at the UN General Assembly vote and its strong protest against the decision regarding E1 as a colossal diplomatic failure. They called the crisis in the relationships with Chancellor Angela Merkel — Israel's greatest supporter in Europe — as a monumental failure by Netanyahu's government.
But lo and behold, at the end of that week, Israeli voters saw Netanyahu sporting a broad smile while standing next to Merkel at the press conference in Berlin shortly after their meeting. The prime minister had good reason to feel content with his host; the headlines that had previously reported a rift with Germany were supplanted by the chancellor's wishy-washy statement that "with regard to the settlements, we agreed to disagree. That topic has been addressed time and again, yet this doesn't prevent us from exchanging similar views on security issues that are important to Israel […] As close partners, we can convey our assessment whether it would be correct or incorrect to promote the two-state solution, and there's disagreement on this point." Merkel explained that "Israel is a sovereign state that will make its own decisions."
The television report of what the chancellor said could well become a campaign ad for Israel's right-wing camp. What better proof is there that their leader is a wizard who can simultaneously juggle several balls? These include the settlement issue, which upsets the chance for peace, and the issue of Israel's security.
Merkel's portrayal of the dispute over the settlements, which threaten to do away with whatever is left of the Oslo process, as an "agreement to disagree" presents the response of the opposing political camp in Israel as a defeatist hysteria. It confirmed Netanyahu's version that the settlement issue is no more than an inconsequential misunderstanding between two lovebirds. After all, even in the best of families, parents don't always agree on everything, yet continue to live together.
Presumably, when she said at the press conference that Israel was a sovereign state and therefore Germany could not impose its position on the settlements, Merkel did not mean to say that Israel was the sovereign in the West Bank. Israel itself does not claim ownership over Area E1. The proposed plan was submitted for the approval of the planning and construction committee of the Civil Administration in the occupied territories and not to the parallel committee in Jerusalem. Even according to Israel's official position, the question of sovereignty over these areas, as well as over the rest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, remains controversial.
Furthermore, in 2003 Netanyahu was a cabinet member in then-prime minister Ariel Sharon's government, which signed an international commitment to abstain from taking such actions. The road map hatched out by the the Quartet, which consisted of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations and submitted to Israel and the Palestinians explicitly stated that Israel had to completely discontinue all construction in the territories. In fact, the solution of "agreeing to disagree" with regard to the settlements legitimizes a violation of the UN's binding Resolution 1515, which was submitted to the Security Council at the initiative of President George W. Bush, garnering across-the-board support. That resolution adopted the road map with no reservations. It should be noted that the construction moratorium in the settlements and the eviction of the illegal outposts were not included in Israel's 14 reservations to the road map.
In his thanks to the chancellor, Netanyahu said that all of Israel's previous governments had also built in the territories. He is in the right. The formula of "agreeing to disagree" regarding the settlement policy is not a German invention. For most of Israel's 45 years of occupation in the territories, the international community has relayed a message in that vein to the Israeli public. Palestinians leaders likened the phenomenon of building settlements in the territories while concurrently negotiating their future to a person eating a pizza slice while negotiating whose it is. Would Merkel have adopted the "agree-to-disagree" approach had one of its neighbors been encroaching on German land for dozens of years?
The concept of "agreeing to disagree" regarding the settlements had, for many years, paved the road for the Labor Party to team up with governments that encourage Jewish settlement in the occupied territories. When an important state such as Germany brushes a flagrant violation of the law and international consensus under the red-carpet treatment it gives Netanyahu, it in fact endorses the joint Likud-Beitenu slate as well as the settlements in the eyes of the Israeli voter. When a superpower like the United States acts like "business as usual" with an Israel government that claims that a settlement that slices up the West Bank and chokes East Jerusalem, it does not merely sabotage the chances for a diplomatic solution — it in fact "agrees to disagree" with the claim that the sun rises in the west and sets in the east.
On Monday, Dec. 10, the EU foreign ministers are convening in Brussels and among the debated issues, the E1 project will be on the agenda. Will they also “agree to disagree?"