It’s unfortunate for Jackson Diehl that this column, in which he argues for Obama to ease up already on Israel over its past commitments to a settlement freeze, should come out the same day as this story in the New York Times, which reports that “Israel would be open to a complete freeze of settlement building in the West Bank for three to six months as part of a broad Middle East peace endeavor that included a Palestinian agreement to negotiate an end to the conflict and confidence-building steps by major Arab nations, senior Israeli officials said Sunday.”
A settlement “pause” is, of course, far short of what Israel committed to under the roadmap, as Peter Juul pointed out in an earlier post. While the Obama administration should continue to pressure Israel on its obligations, I think we should recognize this proposal, as with Netanyahu’s qualified endorsement of a Palestinian state, as positive (if certainly insufficient) progress.
While a settlement freeze is by no means impossible, there’s no doubt that it will be extremely difficult for Netanyahu with regard to his right-wing, settlements-supporting political coalition. Knowing this, it seems to me that the Obama team has created an excellent incentive for the Israelis to engage in final status talks, determine the final borders of Israel and Palestine, after which time Israel can build all it wants — inside Israel.
Diehl, on the other hand, frets that “the extraction of a freeze from Netanyahu is, as a practical matter, unnecessary.”
While further settlement expansion needs to be curbed, both the Palestinian Authority and Arab governments have gone along with previous U.S.-Israeli deals by which construction was to be limited to inside the periphery of settlements near Israel — since everyone knows those areas will be annexed to Israel in a final settlement.
To call this argument — because the Palestinians have begrudgingly gone along with past agreements under which the U.S. acquiesced to continued Israeli building on Palestinian land, it’s no big deal if Israel just keeps building on Palestinian land — specious really does injustice to the word.
It’s also strange that Diehl would accuse the administration of “raising the stakes” by holding Israel to commitments on settlements — commitments that he does not deny that Israel has made. This bespeaks a pretty cynical view of agreements between the U.S. and its partners. I should think Diehl would be more concerned with the loss of American credibility in the region that has resulted from years of a U.S. “wink, wink” policy toward Israeli settlement building — credibility that Obama is now trying to restore as a necessary first step toward resolving the conflict.