Obama, Netanyahu, the Palestinians and the settlements issue

Obama talks to Bibi
Barack Obama on the phone to Benyamin Netanyahu / White House.

I've been thinking about the settlement issue, which is currently at the forefront of the tug-of-war between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations and key to relaunching the Middle East Peace Process. I am disturbed by the emphasis on natural growth of Israel's settlements, rather than the existence of the settlements. This post will attempt to stake out this position. And it's long, so click below to read more.To start with, I think it's useful to have a reminder of the current situation, which the Real News provides a handy summary of:


More at The Real News


Netanuyahu's coalition now insists on constructing further settlements, which is of course important in itself. Marc Lynch, fresh back from a trip to Israel and the West Bank (along with Brian Katulis), has an important post about the Obama administration's policy on the Israel/Palestine conflict:

But for now I just wanted to react to the Netanyahu government's decision to brazenly challenge Obama by authorizing new settlement construction north of Ramallah. The bottom line is that Obama needs to stand tough in the face of this first real challenge, or his strategy will likely fail comprehensively. Rightly or wrongly, Obama has made the settlement issue a test of his credibility, and if he backs down then all the progress he has made will wash away instantly. That makes this a pivotal moment, whether or not an Obama administration focused on Iran wants it to be one. Most Palestinians, with their well-earned skepticism of American policy, expect Obama to back down. Most Israelis probably do as well. And that would be tragic, because without much publicity Obama's pressure has already started generating some important results on the ground -- not just Netanyahu's carefully hedged uttering of an emasculated two state formula, but the significant easing of checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank, the lifting of some of the more ludicrous parts of the blockade of Gaza, the release of Hamas prisoners (including its Parliamentarians) by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and reports that the Egyptians are planning an unveiling of a Hamas-Fatah unity government agreement on July 7. The importance of this moment -- carefully chosen at a time when the U.S. is badly distracted by the events in Iran -- is enhanced by the fact that the proposed settlement expansion obviously has nothing to do with Israeli security. Nor does it have anything to do with the absurd "natural growth" argument, which everybody understands to be a joke (settlements have been expanding at a breakneck pace over the last few years, even as the Israelis were ostensibly negotiating in the Annapolis process, while the government continues to do everything it can to entice Israelis to move there). This is a political challenge, barely veiled, a bid to cut out Mitchell and Obama's legs, and everyone will take it as such.


Marc does not go far enough, though, and should highlight that the Obama administration's stance on the settlements is just a beginning, but not really a satisfactory conclusion. I worry that after all this foot-dragging, Netanyahu will produce a "major concession" of freezing settlement growth (the minimum demanded of him) but then refuse any dismantling of settlements aside from a few wildcat outposts. Indeed, by choosing to emphasize settlement expansion, the Obama administration may be the willing enabler of an Israeli landgrab. I may like him, but I don't trust Obama (or let's just say he has not earned trust yet), and am deeply worried about the administration focus on settlement expansion rather than settlements tout court.

Another article here excoriates Israel's natural growth argument as ridiculous:

Whether he ever admits it publicly or not, Netanyahu is overwhelmingly likely to implement the settlement freeze the US is demanding. The real question is: what then?

A settlement freeze accomplishes two things: one, it buys some time for the Palestinian Authority and for a real, tangible peace process to be revived. But only a few months. In those months, it will be crucial that genuine progress is made on the diplomatic front, on the ground in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and in terms of Israeli security.

The second thing it does is to bring the confrontation with the hardcore minority of the settler movement closer to the surface. A frequent refrain of late has been that Israel is “a country of laws.” Unfortunately, this has generally not been the case when it comes to enforcing the law on the settlers. That will have to change, and the most radical settlers’ likely response to a full and genuine freeze on all construction in the West Bank will put law and order to its final test. Either Israel gets serious about applying Israeli law to the settlers or it will demonstrate that it is not a country of law.

But that’s the limit of a freeze’s effects. Some, including such notable figures in Washington as Daniel Levy and Amjad Atallah of the New America Foundation, have argued that a freeze is the wrong goal, and that the enormous political capital a freeze demands from the US would be better spent on pushing for dismantlement of settlements. They fear that once a freeze is obtained, that political capital will be depleted.

I see it differently. I believe that a freeze will be an investment of political capital, one which will generate great returns if successful and open up more opportunities, including opportunities to push for a rollback of the settlement project. It will give the Palestinian Authority the first evidence it has had that, in the age of Obama, their approach works and Hamas’ does not. The continuing ability of the Palestinian Authority's forces to keep a lid on terrorist activity in the West Bank, coupled with a settlement freeze, will create hope and support for next steps.

But Levy and Atallah are certainly correct that a freeze does nothing in the long run by itself. It must be followed quickly by serious steps toward a final resolution of this conflict. It will open the opportunity for such an outcome.


A few days ago Tony Judt made a similar (but rightly less compromising) argument, stating plainly the obvious — that Israel has no intention of resolving the settlements problem — and arguing that Obama's policies should not allow them to get away with this:

Thus President Obama faces a choice. He can play along with the Israelis, pretending to believe their promises of good intentions and the significance of the distinctions they offer him. Such a pretense would buy him time and favor with Congress. But the Israelis would be playing him for a fool, and he would be seen as one in the Mideast and beyond.

Alternatively, the president could break with two decades of American compliance, acknowledge publicly that the emperor is indeed naked, dismiss Mr. Netanyahu for the cynic he is and remind Israelis that all their settlements are hostage to American goodwill. He could also remind Israelis that the illegal communities have nothing to do with Israel’s defense, much less its founding ideals of agrarian self-sufficiency and Jewish autonomy. They are nothing but a colonial takeover that the United States has no business subsidizing.

But if I am right, and there is no realistic prospect of removing Israel’s settlements, then for the American government to agree that the mere nonexpansion of “authorized” settlements is a genuine step toward peace would be the worst possible outcome of the present diplomatic dance. No one else in the world believes this fairy tale; why should we? Israel’s political elite would breathe an unmerited sigh of relief, having once again pulled the wool over the eyes of its paymaster. The United States would be humiliated in the eyes of its friends, not to speak of its foes. If America cannot stand up for its own interests in the region, at least let it not be played yet again for a patsy.


I would modify Judt argument: there is no realistic prospects of removing the settlements only in the context of a cowardly international community and supine "moderate" Arab states. If this does not change, this effectively means there is no real possibility of ending the conflict through a two-state solution — unless Israel thinks it has reached the point where it can break of the will of the Palestinians and force them to accept a landgrab they have always rejected.

I would like to see Obama clearly articulate that freezing the settlements is merely a first confidence-building step to the removal of most settlements, even large ones. It's understood that those on the border (generally referred as the big three) might stay, in exchange for land swaps with the Palestinians. But Israel should not be allowed them to get them for free, without substantial concessions and reparations for those displaced by the settlements.