The message of Ehud Olmert’s op-ed this morning is simple: Despite promises not to take actions that would prejudice a final outcome, for years, Israel has gotten away with building and expanding settlements on occupied Palestinian land. But now the Obama administration has called them on this. Olmert liked things the way they were!
“The focus on settlement construction, while ignoring the previous understandings,” Olmert writes “unjustly skews the focus from a true political process and from dealing with the real strategic issues confronting the region.”
Olmert states the “previous understandings” (in bold), my responses follow:
- No new settlements would be constructed.
The official boundaries of existing settlements are huge, enabling Israel to construct new “neighborhoods” while claiming they don’t represent “new settlements.”
- No new land would be allocated or confiscated for settlement construction.
The amount of land that has already been allocated or confiscated for settlement construction is enormous, and Israel continues to use an array of bureaucratic and security measures to confiscate Palestinian land.
- Any construction in the settlements would be within current building lines.
The current building lines are enormous.
- There would be no provision of economic incentives promoting settlement growth.
A July 6, 2009 article in the Jerusalem Post entitled “Government still offering settlers incentives” stated that “First-time home buyers can receive a bigger mortgage if they move to settlements such as Itamar and Eilon Moreh than to the city of Ashkelon, according to the Construction and Housing Ministry Web site.”
- The unauthorized outposts built after March 2001 would be dismantled (a commitment that Israel, regrettably, has not yet fulfilled).
Yes, regrettably. As for the unauthorized outposts built before March 2001 (which, in terms of international law, means all the settlements east of the Green Line) normal life, and “natural growth” — which in 2007 accounted for 63 percent of settlement population growth — will continue. All of which is to say that, even if we grant that Olmert’s description of “previous understandings” is accurate, it is precisely these understandings that have enabled the settlements to continue expanding at an enormous rate.
When Olmert writes plaintively about “a proper balance” in U.S.-Israel discussions of settlements “to allow essential elements of stability and normality for Israelis living in settlements,” it’s important to understand that Israel shows no such considerations toward the impact of these settlements on the Palestinians, nor certainly toward Palestinians’ own need for “stability and normality”.
When he was mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert was “considered a driving force behind the intensified campaign to set up new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem,” overseeing a massive expansion (funded to a great extent by private American donors like Irving Moskowitz) of settlements in Palestinian neighborhoods. So Olmert is a particularly unsuitable messenger in this respect.
As Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard said Wednesday in a talk at the New America Foundation, the term “settlement freeze” is itself an oxymoron. The settlements are intended to expand, push out the borders of Israel, to consolidate Israeli control by creating facts on the ground. That’s what the settlements, and the entire matrix of occupation and control that’s been built up around them, are designed to do. Later, of course, any land that Israel agrees to give up in a final agreement can be presented as “painful concessions.”
It is true that the settlements represent only one issue among many standing in the way of progress toward a sustainable peace based upon two states for two peoples. For decades, U.S. administrations have, to differing degrees, effectively indulged Israeli settlement building, but fortunately President Obama and his Middle East team are very clear eyed about the provocative nature of the settlement enterprise, and the enormous cost it exacts in terms of Palestinian misery, American credibility, and Israeli security. The simple reality here is that President Obama refuses to play the game to which Israeli leaders have become accustomed, recognizing instead that the settlements are a huge drag the U.S.’s ability to deal with “the essential issues” that Olmert describes.
Obama should therefore ignore Olmert’s suggestion that settlements “be taken off the public agenda and moved to a discrete dialogue, as in the past.” What the president should do, in my view, as recommended by my colleague Brian Katulis and co-authors Marc Lynch and Robert Adler in their new report, is better communicate to the Israeli public that the United States “will continue to support its security and work to maintain a close bilateral relationship while also pushing forcefully for a two-state solution which it sees as in the best interests of the region.” A substantial portion of the Israeli public understands that the occupation and settlements have been disastrous for Israel. Strengthening and mobilizing this constituency is essential for moving the peace process forward.
Ori Nir of Peace Now sends some data:
- While Olmert held final-status negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas (between the Annapolis Conference in November 2007 and the end of his term), there was a 43% increase in construction-starts in settlements.
- During Olmert’s term as prime minister, 4,560 new housing units were constructed in settlements and 1,523 new tenders were issued for new housing units.
- Almost 1,500 new housing units were constructed east of the separation barrier (not in settlement blocs).
- Some 560 new structures were built in illegal outposts during Olmert’s term.
- None of the illegal outposts in the West Bank were removed during Olmert’s term.
Ori writes “These numbers, collected and processed by Peace Now, may help Olmert understand why Palestinians had trouble taking him seriously at the negotiating table. While making promises about the future of the Palestinian state, his bulldozers were creating more and more facts on the ground of the West Bank. Settlement construction destroys the trust that is so badly needed for serious negotiations.”