(by Charles Levinson, WSJ.com) JERUSALEM — The divide between the United States and Israel over West Bank settlements deepened Thursday after Israel rebuffed the Obama adminstration’s strongest demands yet that it freeze all building there.
After meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Thursday, President Barack Obama stressed that Israel’s obligations toward peace include “stopping settlements” and supporting a Palestinian state. His comments followed a bluntly worded statement Wednesday evening by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Obama “wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions,” Mrs. Clinton said, in the administration’s most explicit renunciation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s West Bank policies. Her comments appeared to leave Mr. Netanyahu no alternative but to choose between his right-wing base and Washington.
Mr. Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev said Thursday that the prime minister won’t change his long-held position that building should be allowed to continue in existing settlements as part of “natural growth.”
Mr. Regev said any complete freeze in settlement activity could be discussed only in final-status peace negotiations with the Palestinians. But Palestinian leaders have refused to resume negotiations until Mr. Netanyahu acknowledges the commitments of past Israeli governments to a Palestinian state.
The growth of Jewish settlements on land occupied by Israel in 1967 has been a source of strain between Israel and the U.S. for decades. In 2003, Israel agreed to stop all settlement expansion, but President George W. Bush generally avoided public confrontations over the issue. Today, about half a million Jews live in more than 100 settlements in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem.
Israel is trying to deflect the growing tensions by shifting the burden back to the Palestinians, who Mr. Regev said have failed to live up to their obligations to crack down on terror in the West Bank. That argument has failed to gain traction in Washington.
The Obama administration is wary of allowing natural growth in settlements because past Israeli governments used that as a pretext for rampant building, said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “Washington has a strong enough memory of what Netanyahu did with natural growth last time he was prime minister, which is basically drive a settlement truck through that loophole,” he said.
Mr. Netanyahu is struggling to placate both the U.S. and his hard-line base. If his policies lead to a perceived rupture in Israel’s relationship with the U.S., many Israelis will turn against him. But if he abandons the Israeli right that voted him into office, he is unlikely to survive politically. His inability to navigate those opposing forces caused his political downfall during his stint as prime minister from 1996 to 1999.
Mr. Netanyahu is trying to find a middle ground. On Monday, he told lawmakers from his Likud Party that Israel would have to destroy 26 illegal outposts in the West Bank in order to win U.S. support for tough action against Iran. After his return from meeting with Mr. Obama in Washington last week, Mr. Netanyahu ordered a few structures built by teenage settlers on private Palestinian land in the West Bank razed. But none of them were among the 26, and settlers quickly started rebuilding some of them.
Meanwhile lawmakers from Mr. Netanyahu’s party responded coldly to his proposal. “The message from the party was clear: We were not chosen by voters to evacuate Jews from their property,” a Likud lawmaker said after a party meeting Monday.
Mr. Obama made reference to the pressures on Mr. Netanyahu Thursday, saying that while “we don’t have a moment to lose” to restart the peace process, he understood that Mr. Netanyahu “has to work through these issues in his own government, in his own coalition.” Mr. Obama added he wasn’t making judgments based on just events of the past week.
Settler leaders have vowed to bring down Mr. Netanyahu’s government if he evacuates outposts. The last time the Israeli government razed an illegal West Bank outpost in 2005, clashes erupted between settlers and police.
Palestinians, meantime, view Mr. Netanyahu’s plan on outposts as a token gesture that will have little impact on Palestinians’ daily lives as long as building continues in other settlements.
“The 26 outposts are not the issue,” said Diana Buttu, a former aide to President Abbas. “It’s the mentality that these settlers have a right to be there, that Israel has a right to continue to build these settlements, and that it is a huge concession by Israel to just abide by international law.”
A spokesman for Israel’s opposition Kadima Party, lead by Tzipi Livni, said Mr. Netanyahu’s position on settlements would hurt Israel’s ties with the U.S. at a time when it most needs them to confront Iran.
Write to Charles Levinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Name the leaders of Israel and of the Palestinian Authority.
2. When meeting with President Abbas this week, what did President Obama say Israel must do to establish peace with the Palestinians? (This demand was backed up by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)
3. How is the Israeli government responding to President Obama’s demands?
4. How has the Obama administration responded to Israel’s complaint that the Palestinians have failed to live up to their obligations to crack down on terrorist attacks on Israelis in the West Bank?
5. What challenge does Prime Minister Netanyahu face in placating both the U.S. and his supporters?
6. To gain a better understanding of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, go to cfr.org/publication/13850. Watch at least one segment. What did you learn that you did not already know?
PLEASE NOTE: “Answers by Email” has ended for the summer.
ON ISRAELI SETTLEMENTS: (from wikipedia.org)
ON PEACE NEGOTIATIONS BETWEEN ISRAEL AND THE PALESTINIANS BEGUN DURING PRESIDENT BUSH’S ADMINISTRATION (from a 2005 cfr.org/publication/7738 article):
What is the “road map?”
A U.S.-backed peace proposal first floated in 2002, the road map sets a series of benchmarks designed to move Israelis and Palestinians over three years to the creation of a Palestinian state that exists in peace with Israel. The Palestinians and Israelis accepted the basic outlines of the plan shortly after it was formally introduced by President Bush in June 2003. However, there has been limited progress toward its goal: a permanent two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What does the plan call on Israelis and Palestinians to do?
Both sides are required to take immediate steps to end violence and create the conditions for a lasting peace. As first steps, Israel must immediately dismantle what are called settlement “outposts,” extensions of Israeli colonies built in the Palestinian territories, and Palestinian leaders must immediately curb terrorism and take steps toward a democratic, accountable government.
Does it resolve longstanding issues like the borders of a Palestinian state or the status of Jerusalem?
No. The plan doesn’t include specific details of a final agreement. Instead, it leaves such “final status” issues open to subsequent negotiations. As a result, some experts consider the road map more of a ceasefire agreement or general framework than a specific blueprint for peace.
Who wrote the road map?
It was drafted by the U.S. State Department, based on a speech President Bush gave in June 2002 that laid out a vision of Israeli and Palestinian states living in peace. It was then modified and endorsed by the group known as the Quartet–representatives of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States–that was set up to work on Middle East peace. The Palestinians, Israelis, and other parties in the Middle East were consulted, but did not directly participate in the plan’s creation.
Go to info.jpost.com/C001/Supplements/MapCenter/il.html for a map of Israel (including the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.)
For an interactive guide to the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, go to cfr.org/publication/13850. (Take the time to view the complete post – it is very informative!)