Wednesday, June 3, 2009

American And Israeli Governments Divided Over Continued Settlement Building

One of the prerequisites for a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians is the stopping of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. Settlements dotting the area make a viable, contiguous Palestinian state impossible; they use up land and water resources that a fledgling state needs; they involve the expropriation of private Palestinian land, and they call for checkpoints to meet the settlements' security needs. 

The Bush administration had an agreement with the Israeli government regarding a certain amount of settlement building. The Obama administration, however, is maintaining a harder line, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

Senior members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet reiterated Sunday that the government has rejected a U.S. demand to halt all activity in West Bank settlements, despite strongly-worded demands from the Obama administration to do so.

...President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have both made very public calls for Israel to institute a total freeze on construction in all West Bank settlements. Tensions between Washington and Jerusalem have been growing as a result.

...[Defense Ministry Chief of Staff Mike] Herzog spoke to [Obama Middle East envoy George] Mitchell and his staff about understandings reached by former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon with the Bush administration on allowing continued building in the large West Bank settlement blocs. He asked that a similar agreement be reached with the Obama government.

The New York Times reported on the extent of Israeli settlement building plans (map above left represents approved housing units according to an analysis by the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din) and its justification under the term "natural growth"–a term with a certain ambiguity:

If Israel built all the housing units already approved in the nation’s overall master plan for settlements, it would almost double the number of settler homes in the West Bank, according to unpublished official data provided to The New York Times.

...Washington is standing firm against any additional settlement construction in the West Bank, including what Israel argues is necessary to accommodate what it terms “natural growth.”

...The settlers’ annual population growth, at 5.6 percent, far outstrips the Israeli average of 1.8 percent. But official data from the Central Bureau of Statistics of Israel shows that while about two-thirds of that is a “natural” increase, as defined by settler births in relation to deaths, one-third stems from migration. There is also a disproportionately high level of state-supported building in the settlements compared with most regions of Israel.

Despite the objections of the Israeli government, President Obama is being honest with America's closest Middle Eastern ally in stating that continued settlement building is an obstacle to peace and is actually against Israel's interests:

President Obama indicated on Monday that he would be more willing to criticize Israel than previous administrations have been, and he reiterated his call for a freeze of Israeli settlements.

“Part of being a good friend is being honest,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with NPR News. “And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests.

“We do have to retain a constant belief in the possibilities of negotiations that will lead to peace,” he added. “I’ve said that a freeze on settlements is part of that.”


Leibniz said...

It is clear that natural growth in settlements which will, in any case, be in Israel as part of any final growth is not an obstacle to peace. The Obama administration itself asked the Netanyahu government to designate which settlements it wanted to build in which it saw as remaining with Israel, the implication being that building only there was not an obstacle to peace. And is it? If accompanied by a land swap, as has already been envisioned?

Here is an obstacle to peace, a program in recent months on Palestinian Authority television
celebrating the most murderous suicide bombing carried out against Israel.

The Palestinians could have had their own state in 1937 and more than once since. The Palestinians need to show that there are any conditions in which they would accept a state with a clear Jewish majority. Then peace will come very rapidly.

Davin Wolok
Brookline, Massachusetts

Jeff Tone said...

The article points out how "natural growth" is itself an ambiguous term. Yesh Din points out the extent of possible growth. The possibility of doubling the number of settler homes is alarming.

I'm not aware that the Obama administration has any such understanding about settlements. Such an understanding was ascribed to the Bush administration, and even there, nothing was formally agreed to.

I agree that such a show by the PA is an obstacle to peace. In fact, it's horrendous. But one obstacle does not justify another.

Palestinians and Israelis both have things to show each other. I think that Israel needs to show that there are limits to settlements and that a viable, contiguous Palestinian state is possible.