Washington’s views on Jewish settlements have always been a telling barometer of a given administration’s attitudes toward Israel in terms of resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.
When settlements have been a major issue, like during the Carter administration, there was a sense that the onus was on Israel; when the topic is not front and center, like under Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, Jerusalem felt it was being treated with more empathy and understanding.
So you don’t have to be Mideast expert to realize that, given recent highly public and blunt signals and statements about the need for Israel to halt all settlement activity, the Obama administration is going to be pressuring the Jerusalem government in the coming weeks and months. Whether that indicates a much-needed dose of tough love to get peace talks on track, or an unfair expectation that Israel make significant compromises (read: concessions) while the Palestinians sit back and enjoy the spectacle, depends on one’s own politics and views on how Mideast progress could be achieved, if indeed it is possible at all today.
No U.S. administration in the last four decades has had positive things to say about Jewish communities in the West Bank (and until four years ago, Gaza). The usual characterization is that the settlements are “unhelpful” or “an obstacle to peace,” though under Carter they were classified as illegal under international law. At best, like under George W. Bush, there were strong indications that the U.S. was willing to recognize the legitimacy of the heavily populated, so-called “consensus” settlements that would be annexed to Israel.
In a letter of understanding to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, Bush wrote that “in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final-status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”
To Sharon, that meant the U.S. recognized that the major Jewish population centers in the West Bank would become part of Israel.
But in a letter a year later to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Bush seemed to pull back a bit, saying that in the end the decisions on these matters will be determined by the two parties.
The word from Washington now is that this administration does not feel bound by the Bush letter to Sharon. And it seems clear that Obama, who will be making a major addresses in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, wants to show the Arab world that he is going to extract real, not just rhetorical, concessions from Netanyahu, namely a halt to settlements.
There will be much back and forth now between Jerusalem and Washington about just what that means. Netanyahu appears ready to shut down illegal outposts, but insists on allowing the “natural growth” of existing settlements. That doesn’t seem to be enough to satisfy Obama, though.
More disturbing is that the Palestinians get a pass on their commitment to stop terror while the pressure is brought to bear on Israel on the details of settlement freeze. In fact, Abbas’ strategy, based on his talks with Obama in Washington last weekend, is completely and characteristically passive: have the U.S. continue to pressure Israel on settlements to the point that the Netanyahu government falls, bringing a more sympathetic Tzipi Livni to power, improving negotiating conditions for the Palestinian Authority.
That’s a plan of action?
Most disturbing is the willful blindness of Washington to two key facts. One is that the Palestinian Authority has virtually no Palestinian authority. Even if Abbas wanted to make peace with Israel, it would be meaningless because Hamas, the Iranian-backed terror group, controls Gaza and has its designs on the West Bank as well. But the diplomats, having no solution to this dilemma, choose to focus on bolstering Abbas, as if that would make a real difference.
The even more basic fact that no one wants to confront is that Palestinian determination to destroy the Jewish state precedes 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestine Liberation Organization that Abbas inherited from Yasir Arafat was founded in 1964, and the goal was to liberate all of Palestine, which translates as all of Israel. To this day, no Palestinian leader has stated clearly that there is legitimacy to a Jewish state in the region.
So while the U.S. and the media focus on Netanyahu’s resistance to recognize a two-state solution, though he and every other Israeli political leader calls for living in peace with the Palestinians, no mention is made of the other half of the equation.
Every U.S. administration can frame the Mideast conflict as it wishes. As long as this one chooses to emphasize what Israel has to do now rather than what is required of the Palestinians, ever, there is reason for concern about who, in fact, is the obstacle to peace.