In the very early days of the Bush administration, George Mitchell was sent to the Holy Land to do a report on the Second Intifada. The resulting document contained ideas that, had Bush actually followed them, could conceivably have done a ton of good. One of the things on Mitchell’s agenda was a freeze of all settlement activity:
Settlements: The GOI also has a responsibility to help rebuild confidence. A cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the GOI freezes all settlement construction activity. Settlement activities must not be allowed to undermine the restoration of calm and the resumption of negotiations.
On each of our two visits to the region, there were Israeli announcements regarding expansion of settlements, and it was almost always the first issue raised by Palestinians with whom we met. The GOI describes its policy as prohibiting new settlements but permitting expansion of existing settlements to accommodate “natural growth.” Palestinians contend that there is no distinction between “new” and “expanded” settlements; and that, except for a brief freeze during the tenure of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, there has been a continuing, aggressive effort by Israel to increase the number and size of settlements.
This is something I’ve written about several times in the past couple of weeks. And I think that absolutely the biggest thing President Obama could do to move the situation in a constructive direction would be serious public and private pressure on Israel for a total freeze on settlement activity. Appointing Mitchell to be his envoy to the region indicates some understanding of the importance of this issue. But as Mitchell’s report makes clear, settlement expansion has continued in the past despite nominal US opposition. Getting the job done will require something more robust.