Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
As I’ve written on the Center’s website and posted on Foreign Policy.com, I’ve been on a trip to Israel, the West Bank, and Jerusalem for the past week and a half, and yesterday afternoon I had a dizzying experience in the span of a few hours. The second part of my trip is with a delegation organized by Academic Exchange, in partnership with the Milken Institute and the Yitzhak Rabin Center, and we have had an excellent set of meetings.
Thursday afternoon, we went from the controversial Israeli settlement Ofra to meetings just a few miles down the road in Ramallah with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Saeb Erekat, a chief Palestinian negotiator for years. Then we headed back into Jerusalem, where we got stuck in traffic due to heavy security for a gay pride parade, which, unlike previous years, fortunately was held without any violence.
Our afternoon started out in Ofra with a discussion by Israel Harel, a leading Israeli settler and columnist in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. With about 3,000 residents, Ofra is a settlement northeast of Ramallah in the West Bank — it was one of the first settlements set up by the Gush Emunim movement in the 1970s. It is currently at the center of a legal and political battle inside of Israel over certain parcels of land and housing units — at a time when the United States and other countries have placed a higher priority on the settlement question.
This article outlines the issues at play in the most recent legal case involving Ofra. Israel’s Ministry of Justice confirmed land that the World Zionist Organization, acting as an agent for the Israeli government, leased to a family in Ofra, even though the leased land was actually Palestinian private property. The case is still pending in Israel’s Supreme Court, and it has several complicated wrinkles, like many other similar cases. And this is just one case — some Israeli groups have raised broader questions about the legality of other parts of Ofra, which is distant from the Green Line between the West Bank and Israel and is connected to Jerusalem by a road built for Israeli settlers.
As Harel gave us a tour of the settlement, he had some strong words to say about the Obama administration’s recent push to get a settlement freeze, which he strongly opposed (no big surprise there). Harel said he was worried that Obama was spending so much time learning the names of things like a small settlement outpost that Obama mentioned in a recent public statement. In his view, with the situation in Afghanistan and threats like a nuclear Pakistan, he thought the American president’s focus on small settlement outposts was misplaced.
He made a plea to anyone in the group who might have ties to the Obama administration, saying to pass along a message: the more pressure America puts on Israel, the more the “Arabs would be less eager to come to terms with us.” In his equation, the more America pressured Israel on settlements, the less likely the Arabs would be willing to stop their support for terrorism and incitement. It was clear that Obama and his top officials’ statements on settlements have troubled Harel. When asked if Israelis in Ofra would abide by a possible Israeli order to leave the settlement in the future, Harel said that he did not believe there would be a civil war, but that he couldn’t predict how the younger generation of the settlement’s population would behave. So in Ofra, the fears and concerns are high.
After our tour at Ofra, our group took the short drive down the road to Ramallah, where we had two meetings, one with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (see the highlights here) and chief Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) negotiator Saeb Erekat. We met Erekat at the offices of the PLO Negotiations Affairs Department, and he reiterated a common frame for the issue that I have heard in many meetings with Palestinian officials — there are essentially three options: 1) a two-state solution established close to the lines of the 1967 borders; 2) a one-state solution; or 3) what is happening now in the West Bank, a carving up of small slices of territory in an approach that Erekat called “apartheid” and said was based on “racism and bigotry.”
He also echoed a similar question I had heard during the first week here with meetings with other Palestinian officials, asking — “What do the Israelis want?” From his perspective, even though he has spent more than a decade across the negotiating table from Israeli officials, he was still unclear about their bottom line. In his view, Israeli officials kept on changing what it was they wanted from the Palestinians. Erekat made clear that his own position was in favor of a two-state solution, the first option, but he believed time was running out. “My biggest nightmare is my inability to bring peace,” he said, and like other Palestinian officials, he stressed the importance of what the Obama administration does. He cast Obama’s speech in Cairo in a long-term historical context, saying essentially that this was not just a chance in a decade or so, but a chance in a several centuries to change the relationship between the Middle East and Western countries. So in Ramallah, the hopes and expectations are high.
The issues on the Israeli-Palestinian front are as complicated as ever. Emotions run high on all sides, and in meetings like we had yesterday, it seems very difficult to bring about a comprehensive and sustainable resolution. But one thing is clear — if the Obama team has accomplished one thing, it is that it has gotten the attention of key leaders and constituencies on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Unlike the preceding administration, which first operated on an “anything but Clinton” approach of neglect, the Obama administration has engaged from the start and made clear its commitment to a two-state solution.
After the opening steps, the hopes, expectations, and fears of key actors out here are sky-high, and all parties are watching closely what the Obama administration does next. What we may be seeing now is the restoration of something the previous administration left in tatters — America’s leverage and power to do something about the situation out here, but we’re in the early stages, and a lot depends on the next steps President Obama takes.
Marc Lynch, with whom I’ve been traveling, has more here on why Obama should hold firm on settlements.