The battle over what a ‘settlement freeze’ means

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Bruce Wolman writes:

When Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington last month, Israeli media reported he was quite shocked at the reception he received in his closed-door meetings with Congress. It appeared the Obama administration had lined up fellow Democrats to make sure Netanyahu heard the same message as Obama had conveyed with respect to Israeli settlements and support for the two-state solution.

By last Monday, however, reports of cracks in the Democratic solidarity started to appear. Politico's Ben Smith filed a report under the headline "Democrats pressure Barack Obama on Israel."  Smith's article suggested Israeli supporters in the Congress were pushing back against the administration's tough talk. Smith began with Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Democrat from Nevada, who manages to represent libertine, if not liberal, Las Vegas, while at the same time serving as the strongest ally in Congress of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America.

“My concern is that we are applying pressure to the wrong party in this dispute. I think it would serve America’s interest better if we were pressuring the Iranians to eliminate the potential of a nuclear threat from Iran, and less time pressuring our allies and the only democracy in the Middle East to stop the natural growth of their settlements.”

“When Congress gets back into session the administration is going to hear from many more members than just me.”

It is not surprising that Berkley was among the first to spring to the Netanyahu government's defense. According to Ha'aretz's Akiva Eldar, Berkley once reprimanded Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat for using the term "occupation." After all "this [Israel] is our country" and "we" won the war. When Erekat responded, "So what am I, if I am not a person living under occupation?" Berkley answered, "War booty."

More disconcerting was Smith's second source, Robert Wexler (D-Fla), an early and strong supporter of President Obama. He told Smith that he "is seeking to narrow the administration's definition of 'settlement' to take pressure off Obama." In Wexler's view,

"… the settlement freeze should apply only to settlements outside Israel’s security fence, or wall, and should exclude territory that appears likely to ultimately remain part of Israel."

“To expect Israel to have the same policy outside the security fence as inside the security fence is unrealistic; it’s counterproductive. I don’t think [the administration’s] public statements have been specific enough” to resolve the question of whether they were referring to all settlements or only settlements outside the barrier.

The problem with Wexler's proposal is that it pre-supposes what is supposed to be negotiated, the boundaries of Israel. Even the Bush administration had insisted that the Sharon government explicitly agree to the security barrier being just that, and not a political boundary. Should Obama adopt the Wexler specifications for settlement expansion, it would be publicly accepting the recently-revealed secret understanding between Elliott Abrams of  Bush's NSC and the Israelis, a policy which led to an acceleration of settlement expansion far exceeding the growth rate in Israel proper. Wexler's interpretation would also sanction current Israeli plans for East Jerusalem, the most worrisome concern from the Palestinian perspective.

Moreover, Wexler demands a price for his very limited settlement freeze, even though the Israelis already agreed to such a  freeze five years ago. The Arabs must take steps to normalize relations with Israel. If the Arabs refuse, “Bibi Netanyahu can’t be expected to perform his obligations if the broader Arab world is not willing to take serious steps toward normalizing relations with Israel.”

In both business and diplomatic circles (and I did my share of business in Israel) Israelis are well known for endlessly negotiating until they are absolutely convinced nothing further can be extracted. For this reason, Wexler's interference can only hinder the Obama initiative (unless that is what the White House really wants). William Daroff, the chief Washington lobbyist for the United Jewish Communities, said as much to the Jerusalem Post,

"… the haziness on the definition of natural growth noted by some members of Congress – particularly, Wexler, one of Obama's closest allies in the legislature – offers possible wiggle-room for resolving the situation, as it would be politically more tenable for Netanyahu to freeze natural growth outside the barrier and still allow Obama to claim a concession."

"To the extent that all parties can agree on the size, scope and location of natural growth of settlements, that would be a way out of this burgeoning disagreement."

Smith of Politico interviewed other Democrats, and "while few will defend illegal Jewish outposts on land they hope will be part of a Palestinian state, they question putting public pressure on Israel while – so far – paying less public attention to Palestinian terrorism and other Arab states' hostility to Israel."

Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) informed Smith he had already heard complaints from constituents during the congressional recess.

"There's a line between articulating U.S. policy and seeming to be pressuring a democracy on what are their domestic policies, and the President is tiptoeing right up to that line. I would like to hear the president talk more about the Palestinian obligation to cut down terrorism."

For Congressman Weiner, Israelis settlements in the occupied West Bank are a domestic Israeli affair.

Perhaps, more important are the views of Representive Gary Ackerman (D-NY), chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. He told Smith, “I don’t think anybody wants to dictate to an ally what they have to do in their own national security interests,” leaving unexplained what is to happen if the national security interests of our ally conflicts with our own interests? When it comes to "settlement" and "natural growth", Ackerman remarked, “I have to hear specifically from the administration exactly how they define their terms and is there room for defining the terms." Ackerman believed there is “room for compromise.” Sounds like more wiggle-room for the Israelis.

With his speech in Egypt on Thursday, Obama appeared to have bought himself some time from his potential Democratic critics. AFP put out on its wire that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer had provided support for Obama, saying the president had simply "reiterated the policy of the United States against the expansion of settlements." Hoyer also told the AFP that when Netanayhu was in Washington, Democratic and Republican leaders "reiterated that the settlements were an issue that he needed to address and he needed to constrain."

Wexler had already admitted to the Jerusalem Post that "the distinction he was making on natural growth was not necessarily shared by the White House, since "the administration statements are not specific enough to know with 100 percent certainty where the administration will ultimately land." The White House proved unwilling to respond to the Post's request for a clarification.

Having faced criticism from Matthew Yglesias at the liberal Think Progress and from others, Congressman Ackerman issued a new statement to Americans for Peace Now shortly after Obama's Egyptian speech entitled, "Ackerman Urges Freeze on Settlement Construction, Not Growing Families." According to Peace Now,

Chairman Ackerman is not saying families shouldn’t grow, or that people should not have babies, but he is saying that settlement construction must stop, period.  This is the view that the Chairman, clearly and unequivocally, has articulated today.

That same day a Jerusalem Post article from their Washington correspondent, Hilary Leila Kreiger, had a headline the opposite of Politico's only four days earlier, "Congress not backing Netanyahu on settlements."

By Thursday evening, the dispute between Israel and the US over settlements seemed to be escalating.  Ha'aretz reported, "Sources in the prime minister's bureau also said that the tensions with the U.S. over settlements had been aggravated by the Cairo speech."

"There will be no agreement on this unless the Americans soften their stance," a source close to Netanyahu said.

In a clearly provocative move, the new Interior Minister of Israel, Eli Yishai, who also is Chairman of Shas, the party of religious Sephardic Jews, ordered that all the resources of his ministry, "its branches and its influences over local government" be exploited to expand the settlements in the territories. Thus, fulfilling an earlier promise made to the Settlers Council.

Haaretz has learned that Yishai has instructed officials at the Interior Ministry to come up with ways to help the settlers, by allowing continued construction within the major West Bank settlement blocs where building has stopped as a result of American pressure.

Yishai wants to include additional built-up areas within the city limits of towns in the major settlement blocs, effectively expanding those cities' boundaries. Adjustment of the city limits, which is within the purview of the Interior Ministry, can mean the addition of several square kilometers to a locale's jurisdiction – or the subtraction of said amount of land.

Yishai thus plans to ensure that city limits will be calculated in as liberal a way as possible, so that construction can eventually take place in the few additional square kilometers, to accommodate the "natural increase" of the population.

In addition, Yishai is hoping to allocate funding from the "interior minister's reserves" to benefit settlements in the West Bank. These funds, amounting to several tens of millions of shekels, are distributed at the discretion of the minister without having to meet certain usual criteria. 

Despite these Israeli provocations, the White House tried to tone down the conflict by week's end. A senior White House official told Ha'aretz that "there is no crisis with Israel. We are working together with the Israelis in order to reach agreements and understandings regarding settlement construction and we will succeed in doing so." Speaking to the same official, The Jerusalem Post was led to believe that "the US recognizes [that] some wiggle room in defining a 'settlement freeze' is called for."

If these latest reports from the Israeli media are true, the Obama administration may not realize the situation it has created, but Aluf Benn of Ha'aretz is more prescient. He wrote over the weekend:

Obama knows what the solution is: the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He is not prepared to hear any other ideas. He demands that Israel stop expanding the settlements: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," he said, adding that this phenomenon violates previous agreements and undermines peace efforts.

Having proclaimed this loud and clear, there is no way that Obama can still agree to "natural growth" and other tricks designed to increase construction in the settlements. Now his credibility is on the line. It's his word against Israel's resolve to keep building. And this means that if Obama does exhibit the patience with which he promised to deal with the conflict, Israel will be facing a political crisis and a serious internal rift.

With George Mitchell returning to the region tomorrow, we should soon have some  further clarification whether the Obama administration is going to meet the expectations set in the Cairo speech. The settlement freeze will be on top of his agenda, along with a call for renewed negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Clearly, elements in Israel are ready for a fight.

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