Ever since Barack Obama's inauguration in January, there's been talk of a looming policy confrontation with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who took office in March, over Israel's settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Headlines like "U.S., Israel square off over settlement expansion" boosted hopes or worries (depending on one's viewpoint) that the U.S. would use its considerable leverage to crack down on the continuing growth of the settlements, which are illegal under international law. At the first hint that Washington might do so, inflammatory posters popped up all over the West Bank (see this photo).
And after Obama's speech in Cairo on June 4, when he called for the settlements to stop, it seemed that the two leaders indeed were headed for a showdown over the most contentious issue in the Middle East.
Partly in response to Obama's address, a major policy speech by Netanyahu was promised. It came on June 14, struggled for lift and landed with a dull thud. "In my vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect," Netanyahu said. "Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other."
Some commentators made much of Netanyahu's use, for the first time ever, of the words "Palestinian state." The phrases the prime minister actually used were "armed Palestinian state" and "demilitarized Palestinian state," and pointed only to a future territory without an army, without control of its airspace, and one that provides "ironclad" security guarantees for Israel. The speech offered nothing new, and was breathtakingly ungracious to the Palestinians.
"Netanyahu spoke about negotiations, but left us with nothing to negotiate as he systematically took nearly every permanent status issue off the table," said Saeb Erekat, the long-time Palestinian negotiator. "Nor did he accept a Palestinian state. Instead, he announced a series of conditions and qualifications that render a viable, independent and sovereign Palestinian state impossible."
In the Israeli press, analysts accustomed to politicians' verbal contortions and massaging of their right-wing constituencies, were quick to dissect the underlying message.
"Welcome, Mr. Prime Minister, to the twentieth century. The problem is that we're already in the twenty first," wrote Ben Caspit, the veteran commentator for Ma'ariv. Although the speech might have been a "first small and hesitant step" it amounted to "thirty minutes of sheer right wing rhetoric."
President Obama conceded that the Israeli leader's address did contain, well, a lot of conditions. "But what we're seeing is at least the possibility that we can restart serious talks," he said politely. Not exactly a rehearsal for hearty handshakes on the White House lawn.
Amidst the revolving-door discussion over the past four decades, two issues need some daylight.
The first concerns the "unauthorized outposts," the 100 or so clusters of caravans or sheds set up on hilltops by extremist settlers as anchor points for future settlements. Outposts need to be seen in multiple contexts. They are, in fact, illegal under Israeli law, and successive governments keep promising to uphold the law and dismantle them. On the rare occasion when that happens, settlers launch what they call "price tag" retribution on Palestinians, and the outposts are quickly rebuilt. But in the international media, where the word "outpost" inevitably is confused with the word "settlement," a removal is portrayed as though an obstacle to peace had been whisked away. The outposts, although provocative and dangerous to the Palestinians, have another purpose. Debate over them serves as deflective chaff, like the aluminum strips ejected by aircraft to foil enemy radar. But the outposts are not benign. As an old Israeli friend told me, they remain "a strategic threat [because] they show that the Israeli governments (all of them) are hostages in the hands of the far right in the country . . . They are afraid of them."
Another repetitive drama that seems to have no final act concerns what Washington will or will not allow Israel to do. In a recent Washington Post article, Daniel Kurtzer, the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, factually nailed down the old story of whether the George W. Bush administration agreed to permit construction for "natural growth," that is, building in settlements to allow for expanding families. Kurtzer dismissed as "nonsense" over-the-top remarks by columnist Charles Krauthammer. Krauthammer fulminated that a "diktat" by Washington to curb natural growth would mean "strangling to death . . .thriving towns . . . It means no increase in population. Which means no babies."
A friend and colleague in Jerusalem put the two articles in a different perspective: "They might be different in tone but it seems that for both writers, the whole settlement issue is to be decided between the U.S. and Israel with no reference to the Palestinians, let alone international law."
It caught me up short. Although I spent three years in Palestine (if President Obama can call the occupied territories "Palestine," I guess I can, too), now that I'm an occasional visitor I sometimes find myself thinking in more detached strategic terms. And I do tend to write more about Israel, simply because Israel, as the occupying power, is the stronger of the two parties and should yield (not on security, but on movement toward a Palestinian state, which will bring security).
My friend, who is neither Israeli nor Palestinian, reminded me that it's all been heard before from a succession of U.S. presidents and Israeli leaders. Decades of speeches and morning-after punditry drift over the heads of those who are rarely consulted, but are merely told how much they might get, possibly, eventually, if they behave themselves and weather permitting. For Palestinians, an independent state is an ever-receding horizon.
So back to the basics, starting with a key plank of international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention says, in Article 49, "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."
But the "transfer" part is exactly what has been happening since Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem (and the Golan Heights) in 1967. So despite the back-and-forth about the outposts, American readers are likely to miss detailed articles about the major settlements such as Gush Etzion and Beitar Illit, both near Bethlehem, Ariel to the north, or the mushrooming and strategically critical E1, which will connect Maale Adumim to Jerusalem, and where there are plans for about 3,000 housing units. More information about the settlements can be read here. Extensive reports and statistics also are available at Peace Now and B'Tselem.
As I pointed out in an earlier column, another facet of the settlement enterprise is the demolition of Palestinian homes. It's true that Palestinians often build (on their own land) without required permits, but that's because Israel makes it diabolically difficult to get a permit.
In the Jordan Valley, for instance, when bulldozers knock down homes and animal pens, there is no thought-provoking political dialogue, only rubble and dust and heartbreak. In June, Save the Children and two other agencies issued a report on the widespread demolitions.
"Facts on the ground" is an old Israeli phrase usually used to describe unpublicized settlement construction while bilateral talks rumble on in air-conditioned conference rooms. The steady growth in the number of settlers – about 5 percent a year – has been painfully obvious to several generations of Palestinians. But settlers do more than build homes with red tile roofs and scenic views: the more aggressive ones routinely destroy Palestinian olive trees, burn wheat crops and harass farmers and villagers in a variety of ways. This, too, is facts on the ground, and it's not much in the headlines.
So far, Obama's stance remains officially opposed to the settlements, including "natural growth." But one story sounded like the other shoe dropping. It suggested that officials see the issue of natural growth as so complicated that the U.S. might be prepared to show some "flexibility" about projects already underway. Successful diplomacy usually includes flexibility, of course, but the story was worrisome: construction projects are always underway somewhere in the West Bank.
When visiting Israel and Palestine, high-level U.S. State Department delegations usually make short ceremonial treks to urbane Ramallah (speeding past Qalandiya and Am'ari refugee camps), history-rich Bethlehem (skipping Deheisheh camp) or steamy Jericho (bypassing Aqabat Jabr and Ein Sultan camps). Should they seek facts-on-the-ground clarity, Secretary Clinton and President Obama would learn a lot from a visit to Nablus or Hebron where Palestinians would describe how they live under daily threat from violent settlers and are denied access to their crop lands by Israeli security forces.
Contrary to what the right-wing commentators say, helping Israel end the settlement enterprise would begin to resolve the world's longest-running conflict. It would start to redress the injustice to Palestinians, and would lay the foundation for lasting peace and security for Israel. In their hearts, most Palestinians and most Israelis know this to be true. Stick to your guns, Mr. President.
In the latest news...
Reuters, citing Israel's Army Radio, reported on June 23 that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has authorized the building of 300 new homes at the settlement of Talmon, near Ramallah in the West Bank.
Army Radio said 60 of the 300 homes slated for Talmon have already been built, and that Barak had approved plans to construct another 240 units. The defense ministry had no immediate comment, saying it was checking the report, Reuters said.