On Settlements, Push Comes to Shove

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published June 03, 2009, issue of June 12, 2009.
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Is the sky really falling?

The answer depends on whether you think the current disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem is just another bump in the road — perhaps a bit more jolting than most, but hardly unprecedented — or an instance of push finally coming to shove, a prospective game-changer.

The best evidence that America’s call for a total freeze on settlement expansion and construction is not some sort of bluff is that weeks ago the president took care to line up congressional support for his startling intervention. While his meetings with key members of Congress were private, they were not secret. The fact that Israel now professes shock that the president seems not to be so much tentatively putting his toe in the water as he is unhesitatingly executing a high-dive indicates how fundamentally Israel’s leadership has misunderstood the gathering sentiment throughout the West — as also President Obama himself.

No great surprise. For decades now, Israel has toyed with the United States, and the United States has indulged Israel’s transgressions while coyly murmuring “you mustn’t.” One example, hardly isolated, will illustrate the pattern: In 1990, with the dramatic increase in immigration to Israel from the Soviet Union, the first President Bush expressed his displeasure with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s insistence that Soviet Jews, like all Israelis, were free to choose to live wherever they wished in Israel — including the West Bank. Shamir’s position sounded quite reasonable. Why, after all, should the Israeli government have restricted Soviet Jews in ways it did not restrict other Israeli citizens?

The prime minister, in a telephone conversation with Bush, sought to reassure the president regarding the impact of the resettlement of Soviet Jews on the peace process. He observed that no special inducements were provided to Soviet Jews to settle in the West Bank, an observation both accurate and misleading. Shamir neglected to note that special inducements — very substantial special inducements, in fact — were available to all Israelis who bought homes in the West Bank. (For example, 65% of the mortgage loan for settlers was interest-free, another 25% at very low interest.) But though Bush knew that Shamir was dissembling, he refrained from public reprimand.

So it was, so it has been for all these years. So it has been as Israel has built (not including East Jerusalem) 58,800 housing units in the West Bank, now home to nearly 300,000 Israeli Jews; even as it has built a fence that at key points snakes through Palestinian land, well beyond the 1967 borders separating Israel and the West Bank; even as it has closed its eyes to the construction of more than 100 illegal settlements and outposts, illegal according to Israeli law; even as its Defense Ministry has approved the construction of 46,500 additional West Bank housing units; even after the Sharon government explicitly agreed to freeze settlement construction as required by the 2003 “road map.”

By now, all the subterfuge has taken on a life of its own, and it may well have become impossible for any Israeli government to call a halt to the expansion, let alone to reverse it.

That said, at the same time that it is unprecedented for an American president to mean precisely what he says to Israel — it really has not happened since the 1956 Suez campaign, when President Eisenhower demanded Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip — it is unprecedented for an Israeli prime minister to stick his thumb in the eye of an American president, which is what Netanyahu has now done by insisting: “We do not intend to build any new settlements, but it wouldn’t be fair to ban construction to meet the needs of natural growth or for there to be an outright construction ban.” In fact, much of the new construction — just now accelerating at a pace not seen since 2003 — is not for natural growth at all, but for newly arrived settlers. Much of it is on Palestinian land. Some of it is east of the separation fence. And Washington is, of course, well aware of all that.

How might this unpleasant disagreement be ended? Obama and Hillary Clinton do not intend the abandonment of Israel; Netanyahu will stop short of punching holes in the American umbrella. But Netanyahu will soon realize that neither Congress nor an aroused American Jewish community is available to defend Israel’s forked-tongue settlement policy. What then? The logical next step would be for Netanyahu to make good on Israel’s commitment to halt all construction except for the settlement blocs that Israel plainly intends to retain, come what may, and promptly to dismantle all the illegal outposts and settlements. While there is so far no evidence that Israel is ready to do either of those quite major things, Netanyahu and his colleagues are bound to realize that their failure to act decisively jeopardizes Israel’s claim to the settlement blocs, subverts the resumption of the peace process and does lasting damage to the indulgent good will of their nation’s historic benefactor.

Yet let there be no mistake: The settlement issue is handy, but hardly decisive. It is more than a sideshow, but even if it is somehow resolved, the center ring remains. The center ring: Neither of the parties to the conflict has any confidence in the pacific intentions of the other, and both are fully entitled to their cruel suspicions. Both parties are so profoundly traumatized that it


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