Closing The Settlements Loophole

harhomaNathan Guttman reports that “for the first time in America’s decades of jousting with Israel over West Bank settlements, an American president seems to have succeeded in isolating the settlements issue and disconnecting it from other elements of support for Israel.”

It is a disentanglement now seen most clearly in Congress, which in the past served as Israel’s stronghold against administration pressure on the issue. But when Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu came to Capitol Hill for a May 18 meeting after being pressed by President Obama to freeze the expansion of West Bank settlements, he was “stunned,” Netanyahu aides said, to hear what seemed like a well-coordinated attack against his stand on settlements. The criticism came from congressional leaders, key lawmakers dealing with foreign relations and even from a group of Jewish members.

This is a great example of how having a president who is committed to holding Israel to its commitments can move things in a positive direction, but that’s not the only difference here. The last president who tried to apply real pressure on settlements — George H. W. Bush — eventually wilted in the face of a sustained lobbying effort by AIPAC and other conservative-leaning groups. Today, in addition to a president who seems personally far better educated on both the actual history of the conflict and the daily realities of Palestinian life under occupation, we have the influence of progressive pro-Israel, pro-peace groups like J Street who don’t define “supporting Israel” as “supporting Israeli conservatives.” Though J Street is far less well-financed than conservative pro-Israel groups, its impact on lawmakers is amplified by the fact that its policy agenda and its general perception of the situation comports pretty closely with the president’s own.

The administration has made its stance clear –- no more settlement growth for any reason. This was underlined yesterday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a press conference with the Egyptian foreign minister, in which she said that the president “wants to see a stop to settlements –- not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions.”

We think it is in the best interests of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others. And we intend to press that point.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports on the pressure that Bibi Netanyahu is facing from Israeli pro-settler groups and other elements of his right-wing coalition. This statement from settler representative Harel Cohen pretty clearly reveals a key element of the strategy of Israel’s settlement policy:

Cohen said the loss of the outposts would be a blow to the settler movement, which maintains that the occupied land belongs to Israel and should not be used to form a Palestinian state.

“They want to throw 2,000 Jews into the street,” Cohen said, referring to the small clusters of mobile homes marked for evacuation. “You have to fight for the outposts in order to distance the battles from the larger settlements.”

Exactly. The purpose of the outposts is to push out the boundaries of nearby settlements, but also to draw political attention away from them. The occasional dismantling of a few outposts now and then — many of which are quickly rebuilt — allows the Israeli government to say that they are trying to deal with the problem, while at the same time construction and expansion continue apace in the main settlement blocs that Israeli conservatives hope to keep.

In my experience, many if not most Israelis — including Israeli leaders — understand that the settlement enterprise is unsustainable. It complicates security, incites violence and drives extremism (both Palestinian and Israeli), and is hugely expensive. Israeli politicians are, however, understandably reticent to confront a powerful, deeply entrenched and highly motivated constituency like the settler movement. American pressure is necessary, then, to create the political space for Israeli leaders to confront that constituency. It’s very encouraging that we seem now to have a U.S. administration willing to apply that pressure, and create that space. The question remains, however, whether Bibi Netanyahu is a peace partner willing or able to take advantage of it.

Peter Juul contributed research and writing to this post.