In an interview with Middle East Progress, former Florida Congressman Robert Wexler, now the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and Cooperation, puts the recent U.S.-Israeli tussle over Jewish settlements “in context“:
I take Prime Minister Netanyahu at his word — I think everyone should — that he was as surprised by the announcement as was the vice president. The housing policy is, however, a barometer of the policy of the government that he oversees. The problem is, while the United States is seeking to bring the parties to proximity talks, no party should be creating facts on the ground that complicate the start of negotiations or the ultimate resolution of the final status issues. And the announcement by the Israeli government was a rather striking example of an action that makes creating trust and developing the formula for an end of conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis more difficult.
There are a couple important points in here. The first is that, whatever Netanyahu did or didn’t know about these particular housing starts, the episode is indicative of how deeply the settlement enterprise is entrenched within the Israeli system, and how deeply Israeli officials and politicians of various parties are committed to it, despite repeated requests, warnings, and condemnations from both the U.S. and the international community as to their provocativeness and illegality.
The second is that, while settlements are not the only issue (no one has ever suggested they are), they are nevertheless a significant one, and Israel’s continuing refusal to recognize that indicates to many a striking lack of seriousness about reaching a final peace deal. Whatever claims Netanyahu believes that Israel has on lands occupied in 1967, the fact is that continued settlement building seriously damages the credibility of Palestinian moderates who believe that a deal with Israel is possible, and bolsters the credibility of Palestinian and other Arab hardliners who insist otherwise.
While Wexler recognizes that the Israelis have not agreed to freeze settlements in East Jerusalem, he says “either you take a process of proximity talks and negotiations seriously or you don’t“:
And you can’t effectively enter into a negotiation process with sincerity if one side or both sides are continuously going to poke the other side in the eye. It just unnecessarily complicates things and needlessly enrages sensibilities in an already combustible environment. And what’s the upside or the advantage of the Israeli government in making such an action? If it is to somehow assuage or comfort a particular domestic political audience then I would respectfully suggest that the Israelis need to balance that perceived gain against the added difficulty it creates for the United States and the international outrage that results from those announcements, as well as the additional pressure that President Abbas receives from the Arab League and elsewhere to end his commitment to the proximity talks. In fairness, the Israelis were quick to point out this was simply an announcement — it wasn’t even as if the building in East Jerusalem would begin for possibly years. So what is the point? Ultimately, respect for the United States should be given more weight and attention. I think that’s what bothered the American administration the most. And, quite frankly, it’s the element of disrespect for America that does not sit well with many Americans, particularly those like me who cherish the unbreakable bond between America and Israel.
Wexler’s point about the difficulties that Israeli intransigence creates for the United States was underscored yesterday by Gen. David Petraeus in his testimony (pdf) before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Petraeus stated that the Israel-Palestinian conflict “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel,” and that “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR [CENTCOM's Area Of Responsibility] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.”
Wexler finishes by saying:
I for one, believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu is in fact capable of both agreeing to and implementing a far-reaching, comprehensive peace agreement. While I am discouraged, at times, like many people are, I still maintain a degree of confidence and optimism and I take the prime minister, as well as President Abbas, at their individual and collective words, that their goals are to end the conflict. Everything we do in America should seek to enable the Israelis and Palestinians to end the conflict, because it is in our national security interests to do so.
With the United States working to end the conflict to the benefit of all sides, it really shouldn’t be asking too much for Netanyahu to attach greater importance to the key regional strategic interests of his country’s most important partner, than to appeasing his right political flank with more and more settlements.