The Israeli government launched a political offensive Monday to convince the Obama administration to allow settlement expansion in return for dismantling illegal outposts, a position supported by the influential chairman of a House subcommittee.
“Internal growth is not an obstacle — it is life,” said the congressman, Gary Ackerman (D-L.I.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.
“There is no moral equivalence between settlements and terrorist activity,” he said by phone shortly after leaving a 90-minute meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.
“Bibi mentioned settlements,” Ackerman continued, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “He pointed out that unlike previous administrations that said they would not build them but built them, he is not building new
settlements. But he has a position that you cannot stop people on the issue of internal growth.”
Ackerman said he subscribed to the position of a Kadima Knesset member, Otniel Schneller, who was quoted as saying: “I will not lend a hand to a dictate preventing my daughters from giving birth to my grandchildren.”
Ackerman’s comments came the same day Dan Meridor, Israel’s minister of Intelligence Agencies, flew to London to meet George Mitchell, America’s special Middle East envoy. He was sent to convince him that “natural growth” should be permitted in the major settlement blocs in return for the dismantling of illegal West Bank outposts.
Meridor was expected to refer to an April 14, 2004 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from President George W. Bush in which Bush acknowledged “new realities on the ground” and said it would be “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”
Ackerman said there is a difference between natural growth and “building settlements on land you are negotiating about or that may be on the negotiating block in the future. It would be unfair to everybody” to build on that land.
Media reports suggested that Netanyahu appeared to be agreeing to President Barack Obama’s request that Israel must make strides on achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in order for the U.S. to successfully win international support in keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
During a meeting of his Likud Party Monday, Netanyahu said he would soon have to remove the illegal outposts and then concentrate on the Iranian nuclear threat. He said he hoped to do that through dialogue.
But Peter Medding, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he is going to have a hard time convincing illegal settlers to leave peaceably.
“The settlers are apprehensive — afraid that the government will start first with the illegal settlements and then expand to others,” he said. “They don’t want any changes. They don’t want any Israeli territorial withdrawal. They see the illegal outposts as a wedge — that once it [dismantling] starts it will continue. That’s why they will be putting pressure on the government to desist.”
Medding said also that settlers found upsetting the comments this week of the head of the Palestinian negotiating team with Israel, Ahmed Qureia, about a future Palestinian state. Qureia told the newspaper Haaretz that Palestinians would permit Israelis to hold dual citizenship if they found themselves living in settlement blocs turned over to Palestinian control.
Talk of a Palestinian state is premature, Medding stressed, because “on the streets of Jerusalem they are not talking of a two-state solution but a three-state solution.” He was referring to the fact that Hamas, which the U.S. and Israel call a terrorist organization, controls the Gaza Strip; Qureia and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas control the West Bank.
Although some observers believe Netanyahu’s position on the illegal outposts was to accommodate Obama in order to win American help on Iran, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday that the two issues are unrelated.
“We need to find a way to explain to the Americans that there is no link between outposts and Iran,” Barak was quoted as telling reporters. “It’s not as though the minute an illegal outpost is dismantled the Iranians will abandon their nuclear aspirations. Therefore, these issues must not be directly hinged on one another.”
“The Iranian threat does not face the State of Israel alone. Iran is threatening the stability of the entire region, as well as many European and Muslim states,” Barak added. “The free world, moderate elements in the region and Israel see eye to eye on this threat.”
Ackerman, who was in Israel as part of a three-member congressional delegation, said that in his meeting with Netanyahu, the idea that there was linkage between the two issues was never suggested.
“He didn’t link it to me,” Ackerman said. “They are separate issues. Do they impact on each other and the political climate? Yes. But they are not related or linked. Iran is not developing a bomb because of sympathy with the Palestinians. And if the Palestinian issue is solved — which we all would like to see — that would not solve any other problem in this part of the world.”
Abbas is expected to press for a total Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank and Jerusalem when he meets with Obama in the White House Saturday. But at least one observer believes Obama may not go along.
“I think Obama wants to get [Israeli-Palestinian negotiations] renewed and will pressure Abbas and Bibi into renewing talks without conditions,” said Yossi Alpher, a Middle East analyst and co-editor of an Israeli-Palestinian online dialogue, bitterlemons.org.
Qureia in his newspaper interview said that before the peace talks could begin, Israel must also evacuate all outposts established since 2001 and all “internal roadblocks that dissect the West Bank.” In the past, Abbas has also said no talks would resume until Israel committed to a two-state solution.
David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace, said he believes Netanyahu left his meeting with Obama believing that the president “shares his concerns that an Iran with nuclear weapons would have a destabilizing impact on the region.”
And Makovsky, who is co-author with Dennis Ross of the forthcoming book, “Myths, Illusions and Peace,” said Netanyahu also understands that the “settlement issue is not going away. He therefore would like to create a set of understandings on the issue before Obama meets this week with Abbas and before his speech next week in Cairo.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said it was unclear to him what Obama’s reaction would be to Abbas’ demands.
“These meetings are towards developing a policy and I don’t expect a clear American policy for some time,” he said. “They [the Obama administration] are still learning the complexities.”
Netanyahu himself made clear Sunday that he has no intention of limiting construction within Jerusalem, which he vowed last week would forever remain in Israeli hands.
“United Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” he said. “Jerusalem was always ours and will always be ours. It will never again be partitioned and divided.”
On Sunday, a U.S. State Department spokesman said Jerusalem’s future remains to be decided.
“Jerusalem is a final-status issue,” the spokesman said. “Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to resolve its status during negotiations. We will support their efforts to reach agreements on all final status issues.”
The State Department position is nothing new, Ackerman pointed out.
“That Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel is something to which I subscribe,” he said. “But what happens to Jerusalem remains to be seen. [Former Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni spoke of two states for two people. But can two people share a capital?”