The growing divide between the Obama administration and the Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu over Israel’s expansion of its West Bank settlements has led to delay tactics by Israel. President Obama must see through them and press his criticism or risk losing credibility among Arabs.
The first delay tactic was an attempt to place the onus for the problems in the region on Iran. This idea was pitched by Netanyahu when he traveled to Washington. It was dismissed by President Obama in Cairo.
The second delay tactic, which seems to have gained more traction than the first, is a plea for sympathy for Israeli settlers. They must be allowed settlement expansion to accommodate for “natural growth,” the argument goes. If not, we would be asking settlers not to have babies. And how can anyone be against babies? This argument was repeated again in Netanyahu’s speech June 14.
But the fact of the matter is, anyone with a basic understanding of three-dimensional construction could tell you that you do not need to usurp more Palestinian land to accommodate the growth of families. You simply should build up.
If the Israelis need any tips on dealing with the rapid growth of population in confined space, they should observe how Gazans have been living for the past 42 years under occupation. Consider that in Israel’s largest West Bank settlement, Ma’ale Adummim, the population density is 673 persons per square kilometer. In Gaza, there are 4,118 Palestinians living per square kilometer.
The settlements are not simply an obstacle to peace because they exist on Palestinian land, but rather because of the way in which they are built to maximize control over land and its resources. That’s why anyone who has seen settlers watering the lawns of their large houses while nearby Palestinian towns face water shortages realizes that the excuse of “natural growth” is a farce intended only to delay and deceive.
The Obama administration should not put up with any delaying tactics when it comes to a settlement freeze. Obama should make it clear to the Israelis that settlers should feel free to grow their families as long as their settlements grow vertically, and not horizontally over Palestinian land. The settlements shouldn’t be there to begin with.
Further, instead of easing pressure on the Israeli government coalition, the United States should do the opposite and increase pressure until Israel complies with a complete settlement freeze.
The United States must put this coalition government in the position to choose between settlement expansion – which some Israelis hold dear – and a strong relationship with the United States, which the whole of Israel values.
Serious pressure coming from the president of the United States, in unison with the Congress, will allow Netanyahu to argue before his coalition that his hands are tied. He can explain that settlement expansion must be abandoned for the good of Israel, its relationship with the United States, and the future stability of the region.
It is key that both policy-making branches of the US government act together. Both have a variety of tools at their disposal to pressure Israel into freezing all horizontal settlement expansion. These tools include an end to unconditional vetoes of UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, the conditioning of military aid and loan guarantees, and calling upon Israel to open up its nuclear weapons program for inspection and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
All of these tools are simply the suspension of privileges the United States extends to Israel. We must make it clear to the Israelis that privileges offered by the United States should not be taken for granted.
Obama raised the stakes when he spoke in Cairo. If Netanyahu calls his bluff in this international game of chicken, the United States will lose the credibility in the region that the president worked so hard to regain. He better not be bluffing.
YOUSEF MUNAYYER is a policy analyst with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.