Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
In his first two full days in office, President Barack Obama made clear that one of his top foreign policy priorities will be resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His first calls to foreign leaders were to the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, and Jordan – all key players in moving toward a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace. The president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton further solidified this high-level shift in U.S. policy by naming former Senator George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace. Mitchell’s work bringing peace to Northern Ireland and as chairman of the 2001 Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee makes him uniquely qualified to be President Obama’s special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Read Middle East Progress’ November 2007 interview with Senator Mitchell here.)
President Obama and Secretary Clinton have taken the right first steps in establishing relationships with the major players and getting a high-level team in place. But when they start putting the flesh on the bones of the United States’ reinvigorated Israeli-Palestinian policy, they would be wise to remember that a for a two-state solution to be viable the question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank can’t be wished away or swept under the rug.
Last night on 60 Minutes, correspondent Bob Simon explored the destructive consequences the settlements have both on the prospects for a two-state solution and the Palestinian people. As one settlement leader told Simon, “Settlements prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state in the land of Israel. This is the goal. And this is the reality.”
As Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg has noted, the longer the question of Israeli settlements outside Israel’s pre-1967 borders is put off, the bigger a threat it becomes to a two-state solution. The more settlements grow, the harder it will be for the Israeli government to remove them and the greater the risk of Israeli-on-Israeli violence becomes.
Making matters worse, the settlements undermine Palestinian popular support for negotiations with Israel and a two-state solution. From 1993 to 2000, during the most intense period of Israeli-Palestinian talks, the number of settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip rose from 116,000 to 198,000. By 2008, more than 290,000 settlers resided in the West Bank (excluding the 187,000 Israelis living in East Jerusalem). This continued growth sends a signal to the Palestinian people that the Israeli government is not really interested in a two-state solution, and gives credibility to the arguments of rejectionist groups like Hamas.
Moreover, as the World Bank noted last year, the settlements impose severe economic penalties on the Palestinian population. Restrictions on Palestinian movement – designed to help protect settlements – inhibit the development of the Palestinian economy. Without addressing the impact the settlements have on Palestinian economic life, it will be difficult for a viable Palestinian state to emerge in the West Bank.
It’s too early to expect detailed statements on specific issues that bear on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the Obama administration has already made rhetorical statements that should lead them to address the settlement question head-on. In her written testimony for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary Clinton stated that the 2003 Road Map – which calls for a freeze in settlement growth and the dismantling of settlement outposts erected since March 2001 – “remains one of the important bases for working toward a two-state solution.”
President Obama also laid an important rhetorical marker – “just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so, too, is a future without hope for the Palestinians.” Tackling the settlement problem will be essential to a future with hope for the Palestinians and the viability of a two-state solution.