Friends don’t let friends build illegal settlements

An Israeli settler and her child play near their house in the illegal West Bank outpost of Ramat Gilad, south of the Palestinian city of Nablus (AFP Photo / Yehuda Raizner)
Since 1967, Israel has ignored calls by the international community to halt settlement construction in the West Bank, but will all that change under US President Barack Obama?

Last week, in front of a packed auditorium at Al-Alzhar University in Cairo, President Obama said (linked full transcript) that the United States would not tolerate any new settlement construction in the West Bank.

“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” Obama said. “This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

Then, after reminding the Palestinians of their own duties, specifically in not resorting to violence to achieve their goal of a sovereign state, Obama reiterated that “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.”

Although Israel has been hearing such sentiments out of Washington continuously for the short duration of Obama’s nascent presidency, the American leader’s remarks, coming as they did in the very heart of Islamic learning, struck a jarring chord for many Israelis.

Some observers went so far as to mourn the end of the Israel-US “special relationship.”

America is making “a move towards a more European America,” wrote Jonathan Rosenblum in The Jewish World Review. “The special ties that have bound the people of America and Israel show signs of fraying.”

But that conclusion seems to be deliberate hyperbole, perhaps to suggest that Israel got a raw deal, and fails to appreciate the numerous ties that bind the United States to Israel, and vice versa.

Obama called America's bonds with Israel “unbreakable.”

“America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known,” the US leader said. “This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon the cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”

Today, with the number of US enemies in the Middle East mounting, the ties that bind America and Israel are also based on security considerations. That rationale, however, was taken to court in 2007 by two US professors, John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt, who argued in their book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (book review), that the relationship, to paraphrase, does not always work to America’s advantage.

Perhaps it is better to say that US-Israel bonds have been stretched to the breaking point, specifically because both sides believed in the indestructibility of the relations.

“Obama left no room for doubt,” wrote Attlia Somfalvi in “The United States supports Israel, yet the era of trickery, promises, and the gradual annexation in Judea and Samaria is over. The time has come for action; the time has come for moving towards a resolution of the Palestinian problem… Obama’s speech was meant to make it clear to Netanyahu who the master of the house is.”

But that statement greatly exaggerates Obama’s political power and prowess. After all, the American president’s warning contains a large loophole that diplomats will be able to interpret in any number of ways.

Obama did not demand that Israel demolish preexisting Jewish settlements in the West Bank; he merely stated that the US will not accept the legitimacy of “continued Israeli settlements.” This could be interpreted, of course, to mean that only future settlements will fall under the category of unacceptable.

Washington is not demanding the destruction of the 121 officially recognized settlements in the West Bank, which are now home to about 280,000 Israelis (Since 1993, the West Bank Jewish settler population has more than doubled. And additional 180,000 Jews live in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians envision as the capital of their future state). Nor would Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ever bow to such a demand. So Obama’s loose statement, which can only have been deliberate, allows both the United States and Israel to meet halfway without either side losing political face.

In fact, Obama is saying nothing more radical than his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, and is simply trying to make Israel respect its obligations under the 2003 “roadmap.” Although Bush occasionally warned Israel about its responsibilities, the shadowy ‘war against terrorism’ had a wonderful way of distracting his attention from the issue.

Incidentally, this is exactly why it would be in America’s best interest not to put the horse before the cart over Iran (as it did with Iraq), another hot-button issue between Israel and Washington. During his recent trip to the White House, Obama suggested there was a “linkage” between bringing Iran’s nuclear ambitions to heel and creating a Palestinian peace.

“To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Obama told Netanyahu in Washington, “I actually think it strengthens our hand… in dealing with a potential Iranian threat.”

To which no-nonsense Netanyahu responded: “There isn’t a policy linkage, and that’s what I hear the President saying, and that’s what I’m saying too. And I’ve always said there’s not a policy linkage between Israel and the Palestinians and… trying to deal with removing the threat of a nuclear bomb.”

But it seems that before the United States willingly gets itself caught in yet another Middle East quagmire, it should demand that the question of a Palestinian peace plan is resolved once and for all. Otherwise, it’s another Iraq-like slog for Uncle Sam, whose military machine is already showing serious signs of overstretch, both moral and physical.

Benjamin Netanyahu, a veteran and very hawkish politician, said Sunday he will deliver a major policy address this week outlining his proposed road to Mideast peace. It will be very interesting to see if the Israeli Prime Minister agrees to the two-state solution that is supported by Washington, or if he will continue along the present road, which could result in Israel isolating itself on the international stage. The "road map" for peace, after all, was not intended to lead us to a dead end.

Israeli oppositional leader Tzipi Livni warned Sunday that Netanyahu’s refusal to declare support for a two-state solution may cause the United States to withdraw its support for Israel.

“In the past, it was clear Israel wanted to accept peace,” Livni told Army Radio. “The government today, however, is not prepared to advance the process and set future borders, and the feeling in the world is that all Israel is trying to do is gain time.”

Robert Bridge, RT