Obama’s Irrational Preoccupation with the Settlements

Since taking office this past January, President Obama has pressed for renewed peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. While he has exhorted both sides to make concessions, the bulk of his effort, at least publicly, has been to … Read More

By / October 6, 2009

Since taking office this past January, President Obama has pressed for renewed peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. While he has exhorted both sides to make concessions, the bulk of his effort, at least publicly, has been to pressure Israel to respect his demand to immediately freeze all construction in its settlements. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected the demand saying that freezing construction in Israeli settlements when new apartments, schools, roads, etc. were needed, was tantamount to "freezing life" in those settlements, and therefore "unreasonable."

Ask average, albeit somewhat informed Americans what feelings or images they associate with Israel, and you’re likely to receive responses that range from the extreme positive to the extreme negative but are mostly somewhere in between. Ask the same group about Israeli settlers, however, and you’re likely to elicit an overwhelmingly negative response. The word "settler" has become a pejorative term. It is, for many people, including those who are not anti-Israel, synonymous with violent fanatic.

One would have to write a book to adequately address the issue of Israeli settlements, which is much more complicated than most news sources would have us believe. Suffice it to say, we should be troubled that the media use the same word, "settler," to describe, on the one hand, an ideologue committed to a "Greater Israel" and, on the other, a regular citizen of any political persuasion who is motivated by economic concerns. I’d venture to guess that when most people hear the word "settler," they think of the former. But in reality, as David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy notes in his article Beyond Settlements: US Policy Options Going Forward, "80% of [the 285,000] Israeli settlers live in less than 5% of the West Bank — largely, but not completely, adjacent to the pre-1967 boundaries." Thus, one could argue that 57,000 settlers, the other 20%, stand in the way of a future Palestinian state. But, Makovsky continues, "an equal amount of land within Israel could be swapped in exchange [for the 5% of the West Bank where 80% of settlers currently live], allowing [both Israeli and Palestinian leadership] to claim victory." In other words, 228,000 settlers, the 80% majority, can be absorbed into Israel without any sacrifice by the Palestinians, and therefore cannot be considered an obstacle to the peace process.

It is also worth noting that all settlers live on land that was captured in the ’67 War, a defensive war that Israel fought for its survival and won. Against the backdrop of that war, the Arab aggression that led to it, and the Khartoum Resolution of 1967 that followed in its wake in which the Arab World established the three Nos—"no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it"—it is hard to blame Israel for allowing its citizens to settle captured land. Furthermore, I think one would be hard pressed to cite another example in all of history where it was presumed that the victor would return land that it had captured in a defensive war against the vanquished.

But leaving aside the issue of whether the settlements can be morally justified, one can’t help but wonder how they are at the top of Obama’s agenda given all that’s transpired in the Middle East over the last decade. To briefly recap some of the highlights, in 2000-2001, the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former President Clinton came up with a peace offer that the late Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestinan Authority, couldn’t refuse: A Palestinian state on about 97% of the occupied territories, the Old City of Jerusalem (with the exception ofthe Jewish and Armenian quarters), and $30 billion in compensation for Palestinian refugees. Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, who was facilitating negotiations, called the offer "remarkable" and said that if Arafat refused it, "it is not going to be a tragedy, it’s going to be a crime." Arafat refused it. According to top negotiator Dennis Ross, for Arafat, "to end the conflict is to end himself" ("Powell Should Tell Arafat: ‘It’s Now or Never,’" M. Kondracke"). The Arafat-led Second Intifada began in late September of 2000.

In August through September of 2005, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza settlements and four West Bank settlements. The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization and had bombarded Israel from Gaza with Qassam rockets for five years, repaid Israel’s concession by increasing its attacks on Israeli civilians. As for Arafat, the end of conflict would be the end of Hamas.

Finally, before stepping down last year, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came up with Israel’s most generous (some would say fool hardy) offer yet: 100% of the West Bank (composed of 93 to 94% of West Bank land and the rest made up by territory from pre-1967 Israel), the return of more than a thousand Palestinian Refugees to Israel’s final borders, and the internationalization of Jerusalem under Israeli, Palestinian, American, Jordanian and Saudi Arabian governments. The current chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, refused. Can anyone detect a pattern here? Palestinian leaders have consistently rejected their opportunities to provide for their people and forgo belligerence. This is not an issue of settlements. It’s an issue of Palestinian refusal to accept a Jewish state.

If Obama is going to turn a blind eye to history, at least he could consider the current state of Palestinian affairs. Hamas rules over all of Gaza, roughly 38% of the Palestinian population. Hamas refuses to engage a peace process with Israel, a country it has sworn to destroy. Fatah, which in contrast to Hamas is Western-backed and internationally recognized, governs the other portion of the Palestinan population. Fatah heads the Palestinian Authority and is based in the West Bank (Hamas routed Fatah from Gaza in a bloody coup in 2006 and 2007). Its "moderate" leader, Mahmoud Abbas, does engage the peace process (not all elements of Fatah do), but refuses to refer to Israel as a Jewish state. It shouldn’t take much common sense to conclude that a Palestinian population divided between two governments, one whose charter is to destroy all of Israel and another whose most moderate elements have principled objections to referring to Israel as a Jewish state, is not a legitimate peace partner.

But the consequences of Obama’s misguided efforts do not end here. In fact, Obama should be credited with establishing a new obstacle to the peace process: Abbas’ refusal to restart negotiations. Abbas, who has enjoyed great support in the West, learned the hard way that appearing too friendly to Western diplomats and politicians was a sure way to earn the enmity of the Arab street. Already under fire for policies that many in the Arab world viewed as conciliatory, he was roundly criticized as a traitor when he shook hands with former prime minister Ariel Sharon at a the Red Sea Summit in 2003. Since then, Abbas has become acutely aware of his public image. He has realized that if he is to enjoy the support of the Arab world, he must burnish his credentials as tough negotiator. Given that the U.S. is widely seen as Israel’s only reliable ally, Abbas is loath to appear any less tough on Israel than an American administration—to do so would be the end of his political career. Therefore, it shouldn’t be too hard to predict what happened once Obama went public with his demand for a settlement freeze. Without missing a beat, Abbas stated that not only was a settlement freeze necessary, it was a pre-condition to negotiations. And thus, Obama’s attempt to restart the peace process did exactly the opposite.

More recently, reality, in the form of a 4% Israeli approval rating, has begun to set in for Obama. He has spoken out against the Palestinian demand he helped to create, asserting that a freeze in settlement construction cannot be a pre-condition to negotiations, as Abbas would like. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s approval rating has soared to a whopping 65%, a ringing endorsement by the standards of Israel’s political system, according to UPenn Ph.D. candidate Eric Trager. No doubt, Netanyahu, who barely won Israel’s last election, has benefited mightily from Obama’s clumsiness. Unfortunately, Middle East peace has not.

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