A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Settlements Issue Moves Back to Center Stage

Possibly for the first time in a generation, it appears that Israel's settlement policy is going to be a real sticking point between the US and the Israelis. Since I assume most of my readers follow the basic news from the region I haven't been commenting on the day-to-day debates since Netanyahu's Washington visit, but plenty of other people have. Anyone paying attention has probably seen Laura Rozen's "Netanyahu: 'What in the hell do they want from me?'" post at Foreign Policy, and there have been plenty of reports in the Israeli press suggesting that the Netanyahu government is genuinely shocked to think that the US may actually mean what it has been saying for years under the "road map" and other policies: that a settlement freeze is essential, that the "outposts" must go, that "natural population growth" is unhelpful. The wink-and-nod policies of previous administrations have accustomed the Israelis to assume that the US does not really intend to enforce what it claims to believe, that settlements are an obstacle to peace. Now maybe it actually means it, and the Netanyahu government is a bit gobsmacked by the whole thing.

Few Israeli journalists have followed the settlements issue more closely than Akiva Eldar, and I highly recommend his book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories 1967-2007. He's still on the beat. In his latest in Haaretz, he punctures the bubble of "Natural Population Growth" to show how much the settlements have grown since the Oslo Accords. Though Netanyahu has shown signs of dismantling some of the "outposts," he is still adamant about the "natural growth" excuse. And don't miss his earlier "What will happen if Israel 'defeats' Obama?".

Another great resource for any debate on settlements is the Foundation for Middle East Peace, headed by Ambassador Phil Wilcox and with their settlements analysis done by veteran analyst Geoffrey Aronson. They rent space in our building here at MEI so they're practically family, but their Report on Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories is a crucial tool for keeping track, and most of all they do great maps. Click on "Maps" at the link.

The interesting thing is that the settlements issue has been moving into center stage just before Obama goes to Riyadh and Cairo, which may enhance his credibility there. He's getting somewhat better press because of the Israeli negativity towards what they're hearing from Washington.

There were ven reports the US might take punitive measures such as not automatically supporting Israel at the UN (and using its veto to do so), but now these reports are being dismissed.

While some of us who think settlement activity is a major obstacle to peace may applaud current developments, we should also remember that the situation on the ground can transform the policy debate. Settlers and Palestinians have clashed violently around Nablus, and not only were there protests in the northern West Bank, but rumors that some outposts were about to be dismantled led to settlers blocking the main highway entering Jerusalem, inconveniencing Israeli commuters as well.

For a long time the settlements issue has flown under the radar in this country's policy, despite a persistent refrain that settlement activity is "unhelpful." During the George W. Bush Administration there was a tolerance of settlement activity that ran directly against the grain of the policies of the George H.W. Bush Administration. But now the Netanyahu government seems genuinely surprised to find a US Administration that actually explects compliance with the road map.

I have always felt that Netanyahu himself is a pragmatist or, perhaps more accurately, an opportunist with relatively malleable ideological views, but Likud today (since its centrist elements and even Ariel Sharon defected to Kadima) is more ideologically committed to the settlements than ever. Whether the US and Israel are really going to finally have a showdown on the settlements issue remains to be seen. But after years of "benign neglect," the US is paying attention to the issue again, though changed facts on the ground make it even harder to find a way out.

I haven't gotten into the whole "Is a two-state solution still feasible?" debate because I find it hard to conceive of any other way out of disaster, but clearly the only way to achieve a two-state solution with any hope of actually holding is to solve the settlements issue. Bringing it to the forefront is not a bad thing, I think: it's long been the central issue. It, like the refugee problem and Jerusalem, are the nuts no one has yet quite been able to crack. But ignoring it does not make it go away, and for the first time since the early 1990s, the US seems to have stopped ignoring it.

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