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Guardian Leader | The Guardian | 22 July 2004
Once again Israel has vowed to flout a United Nations resolution and once again America will let it. In voting against the general assembly's resolution demanding that Israel obey a World Court ruling to dismantle the wall it is building through the West Bank, the deputy US ambassador James Cunningham said the move was missing the point. "The resolution diverts attention from where it should be - on the practical efforts to move the parties towards realisation of the ultimate goal of two states living side by side in peace and security," he said. But who exactly is making these practical efforts? Not the US, if we are to believe the analysis written by the Department for International Development and signed off by the development secretary Hilary Benn. DfID said there was a real risk of US disengagement from the peace process, just at the moment when diplomatic pressure was needed to stop it collapsing. One can always look for reasons for inaction: the current meltdown within the Palestinian Authority, a fast-approaching presidential election in November in which nothing must be said by either candidate to upset Jewish voters, the all-consuming effort to stabilise Iraq. The same argument that it is never a good time ensured the longevity of attempts to seek a political settlement in Northern Ireland. But time is not on the side of those who maintain that oxygen can be administered to the limp corpse of the road map. The separation barrier is going up, and no one but the profoundly optimistic believes it will come down soon. A new political border is being created, effectively dividing the West Bank into three or four cantons, and America and Europe look on, as if powerless to stop it.
Israel argues that the choice is between life or death. To stop building the barrier, Ariel Sharon's spokesman Raanan Gissin said, would be to abdicate Israel's inalienable right to self-defence. But 90% of the argument is not about Israel's right to build a wall, but where it builds it. Palestinian lawyers argue that if the barrier were a purely defensive measure, it would be built along the 1967 border known as the green line. The World Court agreed. It found that the first 125 miles of a planned 435-mile barrier, involved the confiscation and destruction of Palestinian land, the disruption of the lives of thousands of civilians and the de facto annexation of large areas of territory: in other words a land grab. While the Israeli supreme court argued that the wall was not illegal, it did find that the barrier caused unjustified hardship to 35,000 Palestinians in one area , by cutting them off from their lands, schools and hospitals. The supreme court ruling gives Mr Sharon the opportunity to drag the barrier closer back to the green line. His cabinet will shortly consider one of three options presented by the army. But while some of the less grievous injustices may be reversed, there is no evidence that Mr Sharon has any intention of abandoning the three main salients into Palestinian territory, Ariel, Maale Adumim and Etzion, which account for most of the expropriated territory.
International pressure should be applied on Mr Sharon now. But if, in the real world, nothing will change until the battle for the White House is over, the case for economic sanctions against Israel will start to build inexorably.The European Union is Israel's biggest trading partner and, as Gerald Kaufman has argued, member countries could make trade agreements conditional on Israel's compliance with international law. While Jack Straw told Arab leaders in the run-up to the Iraq war that there were two types of UN resolution - the binding ones which applied to Saddam and the non-binding ones which applied to Israel, this is not a good argument. A just settlement in the Middle East will never be achieved by looking the other way.