The Israeli government has responded again to President Obama’s pressure to freeze all construction in settlements, in accordance with Israel’s obligations under the 2003 roadmap. Unfortunately, the Israeli government doesn’t seem to understand what the word “freeze” means. The New York Times reports today that the Israeli government will propose a conditional suspension of some settlement construction in a meeting between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell today. But this quasi-suspension seems more designed to relieve the pressure the Obama administration is placing on Israel for a settlement freeze than actually fulfill the roadmap obligations.
According to the Times, the Israeli offer will only last three to six months, during which a final status deal with the Palestinians and a broader end to the Arab-Israeli conflict will be negotiated. Construction projects currently under way would not be affected by the Israeli proposal, nor would construction in East Jerusalem. While this offer represents a shift from the Netanyahu government’s earlier stance of allowing “natural growth” in settlements, it’s still a far cry from the complete freeze demanded by both President Obama and the roadmap. Portraying it as a “freeze” when it allows settlement construction currently underway to move forward and excludes East Jerusalem –- the status of which is presumably subject to final status negotiations -– is rhetorical sleight of hand that attempts to portray Israel as being reasonable.
This dishonesty is compounded by reports that Barak’s Defense Ministry approved the construction of 50 new homes in an existing settlement just before Barak came to Washington bearing the Israeli government’s new proposal. This new construction is supposed to give settlers evicted from an illegal outpost homes, but it’s unclear why an existing settlement needs to be expanded to accommodate them. An illegal outpost is dismantled, but its residents are relocated to an existing settlement that will require additional construction in order to house them. Meanwhile, the Israeli defense minister will come to Washington bearing a settlement freeze that isn’t really a freeze.
So far, President Obama has been right to remain steadfast on a complete settlement freeze as outlined in the roadmap. Neither he nor Special Envoy Mitchell should let the Israeli government get away with rhetorical sleight of hand or shell games when it comes to the settlements. The fact that the Netanyahu government has already inched away from its own uncompromising position indicates that the United States can obtain more concessions if it remains firm on the issue.