The Settlements and the Quartet

When President Barak Obama said in his Cairo speech that “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” he cut to the heart of the four decade old conflict in the Occupied Territories, slicing through the thicket of “confidence building,” “security walls,” and  “road maps” that have derailed one peace attempt after another.

But has the process already gone too far? Has Tel Aviv’s policy of “creating facts on the ground” and moving over 500,000 settlers into the West Bank made disentangling the two people impossible? Do the Israelis have any interest in removing some 120 settlements, and 100 so-called “outposts”? And if Obama is serious about putting the squeeze on the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, does he have the political backing to make it stick?

On the last point, the answer would seem to be “yes.” According to a recent Zogby International poll, 50 percent of Americans think that the U.S. should “get tough” with Israel. Some 32 percent were “not sure,” and only 19 percent said, “do nothing.” But once the partisan gap is factored in, Obama supporters overwhelmingly favor “getting tough” by 71 to 18.

The poll shows strong support for Israel—71 percent to 21 percent—and a negative view of Palestinians—25 to 66—but again, there were strong differences between Obama and McCain supporters. Asked if Israeli and U.S. interests were identical, Obama voters said “no” 59 to 28, while McCain voters said they were identical 78 to 15. Obama backers had a largely negative view of Netanyahu—49 to 29—while McCain supporters favored the Israeli prime minister 82 to 9.

While the Netanyahu administration has tried to rally Americans Jews to support the settlement project, according to Guttman, “On this issue, the community could find it difficult to back Netanyahu.”

Indeed, the prime minister’s reluctant endorsement of a two-state solution—and one filled with so many caveats that it would be almost impossible for the Palestinians to accept—might have been, in part, a response to the concerns of American Jews. According to Guttman in The Forward, “For the mainstream Jewish community…has fully embraced the idea of a two state solution and has been working to promote it within the community and among policymakers.”

In short, Americans who voted for Obama have his back if he wants to lean on Netanyahu.

The current Israeli government doesn’t even have a great deal of support at home. According to a recent Tel Aviv University poll almost two-thirds of Israelis view the settlements as a liability, not an asset, and a majority are willing to dismantle all but the largest. According to Tel Aviv University political scientist, Tamar Hermann, the Israeli public believes that “settlements do not stop terror and they use up Israeli resources.”

Which doesn’t mean they support dismantling them, or even freezing their expansion. A recent Maagar Mohot poll found that by a margin of 56 to 37, Jewish Israelis think the government should resist the Obama Administration’s call for a freeze, and 36 percent think all the settlements should be kept, while 30 percent think only smaller settlements should be abandoned.

But the poll also found out something that Washington should pay attention to: some 50 percent of those polled think that the Obama Administration is not serious about a freeze. Only 32 percent of them thought it might be a “make or break” demand, suggesting that those poll numbers might shift dramatically if Israelis thought the $2.3 billion in yearly U.S. aid, plus billions in military support might be affected.

Whatever their sentiments, Israel is currently gripped by political apathy except among some militant settlers and the core of the Israeli peace and human rights movement.

“Israelis are generally worn out, and in the same way that today they won’t take to the streets calling for peace, they are not going to get up and fight for the settlements,” Michael Barak, CEO of Keevoon Research, Strategy & Communications told The Forward.

In the meantime, however, settlement expansion continues. In spite of a serious economic down turn, and deep cuts in social services and education, Shas Party Interior Minister Eli Yishai is allotting $250 million to the settlements. Half will go toward settlement expansion.

And according to Peace Now, “The official figures are nothing but the tip of the iceberg” with other settlement spending spread throughout Israel’s two-year $159 billion budget. “Israelis will pay not only a political price for the settlements, but also an economic one,” warns Peace Now’s Yariv Oppenheimer.

“Natural growth” is the central rationale the Netanyahu government makes for why the settlements need to expand—although the Prime Minister does not use the term itself— but official figures don’t support the argument that this is about building to accommodate a baby boom.

According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, the annual population growth for the settlements is 5.9 percent, three and a half times higher than for Israel, which suggests immigration is a major cause of population expansion. For instance, in 2007 some 36 percent of all new settlers immigrated from Israel or abroad.

“Somewhere between a third and two fifths of the growth of settlement population during the last decade hasn’t been ‘natural’ at all,” writes The Forward columnist Leonard Fein. “It has been the result of heavily subsidized migration, not family expansion.”

What Netanyahu can count on are the most radical of the settlers, who have made it clear they will block any attempt to dismantle settlements. Settlers have launched “Operation Price Tag”, which organizes riots to smash Palestinian cars, assault Palestinians farmers, and burn fields and olive groves if the Tel Aviv government tries to remove any settlements. Indeed, part of the Israeli public’s souring on the settlers is because West Bank militants have increasingly clashed with the Israeli Army.

“The hard core of the settlement movement today endangers Israel as a Jewish state,” says Yossi Alpher, co-editor of Bitterlemons, and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. “It prolongs an occupation that has already eroded Israel’s sovereign capacity to deal with the problem.”

While a “freeze” seems like a relatively modest demand, according to Geoffrey Aronson of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, halting settlement construction would mean that Israel “would have to undo the system by which the military establishment, the legislative and executive arms of the state, settlers, and public, private, and supranational communal organizations collaborate in the encouragement and expansion of settlements.”

In “A Settlement Stalemate With No End in Sight,” author and columnist William Pfaff writes says that “Major elements in the state administration, defense forces, planning and budget agencies, and security programs and practices, plus the incentives to individuals and businesses to develop the settlements, would have to be undone.”

Some analysts argue that the Prime Minister will never agree to a real freeze. “Why won’t Netanyahu agree to a freeze?” asks Israeli historian and author Gershom Gorenberg, “[because] he regards the West Bank as Israel’s patrimony, and has never recognized that denying political rights to the Palestinian population undermines Israeli democracy. His proposals for the future are the discredited colonial ideas of the past: Palestinians will concede dreams of independence in return for marginal economic progress.”

Certainly the Israelis are still building. Defense Minister Ehud Barak authorized construction of 300 housing units in the Talmon settlement. Under international law, all settlements in the Occupied Territories are illegal.

But might Netanyahu agree to a freeze? He is a hard rightist, but also a crafty politician. A “freeze” on settlement expansion might buy his government time, and time is the enemy of a Middle East peace.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has floated a proposal to freeze “new building in the settlements, excluding Jerusalem, for three to six months. In return, the Palestinians would have to stop their protests and Arab countries would move toward recognition.

The Israeli Prime Minister has already said, “We will not build new settlements and we will not expropriate additional land for settlements.” But the settlements have municipalized enough adjacent land to greatly expand without technically building “new” ones, or expropriating land.

For instance, Mitzpe Shalem is a settlement of 200 people near the Dead Sea, but its municipal district embraces 13.6 sq miles. No “new land” would need to be “expropriated” to vastly expand the settlement.

It is unlikely that the Palestinians or Arab countries would accept a freeze that does not lead to an absolute ban on all building, meaningful negotiations on removing Israeli roadblocks in the West Bank, opening Gaza, sharing Jerusalem and establishing final borders.

“It would indeed be a victory for Netanyahu if in return for freezing a few extra flats, Obama let himself be maneuvered into accepting that the existing settlements are ‘facts on the ground’ that can never be changed,” editorialized the British Guardian.

The Netanyahu government is under increasing international pressure. Meeting in Trieste, Italy, the Middle East Quartet—the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations—called for a freeze on all settlement activity, and a “sustained reopening” of crossing points into Gaza. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that France “would no longer accept Israeli subterfuges meant to disguise colony construction.”

The question is whether the Quartet is willing to make the settlements a “make or break” issue? If they do, they might find it is possible to bring this long running tragedy to a close.

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