Last month, President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pressed for focus on a resolution to the Israel-Palestine dispute. Obama specifically called on Israel to freeze all settlements in the West Bank. “Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s a difficult issue. I recognize that. But it’s an important one, and it has to be addressed.”
Previous Israeli governments have come to expect the White House to allow loopholes in any demand on settlement freezes, such as the Bush administration’s back-door agreement with the Israelis back in late 2002 allowing expansion within existing West Bank settlements, what the Israelis call “natural growth.” Israelis have used “natural growth” arguments to justify funding further settlement expansion. In fact, recent data show that “in 2007, natural growth accounted for 63 percent of settlement population growth, whereas internal migration accounted for 37 percent.”
This time, however, the Obama administration is holding firm and doing so publicly. More importantly, it appeared that Netanyahu ran into problems when dealing with Congress on the settlement issue soon after meeting Obama:
Whereas in the past Israeli leaders have sometimes eased pressure from Washington on the settlements issue by going to members of Congress, this time, observers in Washington and Israel say, key pro-Israel allies in Congress have been largely reinforcing the Obama team’s message to Netanyahu. What changed? “Members of Congress have more willing to follow the leadership of the administration … because [they] believe it is in our national security interest to move toward ending the conflict and that it is not a zero sum for Israel,” the former senior Clinton administration official said.
However, Politico reports this week that support for Obama’s message on Israel-Palestine among Democrats in Congress is starting to wane. “My concern is that we are applying pressure to the wrong party in this dispute,” said Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV). Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) complained, “I would have liked to hear the president talk more about the Palestinian obligation to cut down on terrorism.” Today, the L.A. Times reports more dissent from congressional Democrats:
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House foreign affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, said focusing on settlement activity “detracts” from top U.S. goals in the region. However, he added: “I do not support a settlement freeze that calls on Israeli families not to grow, get married, or forces them to throw away their grandparents. Telling people not to have children is unthinkable and inhumane.“
Ackerman’s claim is a canard. No one is calling on Israeli families “not to grow.” And as Matt Yglesias notes, “Ackerman’s position is just the position that peace is impossible, and that Israel must fight forever to squeeze the Palestinians out of the West Bank, while the Palestinians must fight forever for the destruction of Israel.”
Moreover, Weiner’s comment is not even factually accurate; Obama has made it very clear on numerous occasions that the Palestinians must meet their obligations under the “road map” to a two-state solution laid out in 2003. But Obama has also said the Israelis must meet their obligations as well. A provision in the road map specifically states that Israel “freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).”
In an interview with NPR this week, Obama acknowledged that private agreements with the Israelis on the settlements issue (such as the Bush administration’s in 2002) undermines American credibility in the peace process. “I think what is certainly true is that the United States has to follow through on what it says,” he said, adding that “it is important for us to be clear about what we believe will lead to peace and that there’s not equivocation and there’s not a sense that we expect only compromise on one side; it’s going to have to be two-sided.”
Indeed, today in his speech at Cairo University in Egypt, Obama said that both sides need to follow through with their commitments. “The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people…Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist,” he said. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”
A new Gallup Poll finds that 55 percent approve of the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East, while only 37 percent disapprove. Moreover, 51 percent support an independent Palestinian state, versus only 29 percent who oppose one.
,A new poll out of Tel Aviv University found that Israelis are less supportive of settlements now than they have been in the past and that “a majority of Israelis — almost two-thirds — consider the settlements a liability rather than an asset.”
,Ackerman clarified that he supports a freeze on new construction in existing settlements. “A freeze on settlement construction — not family life — will set the stage for those negotiations to begin in earnest,” he said.