In the face of an outraged Arab world, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton backed off on her congratulation of Israel for merely pledging to limit settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. Previously, President Barack Obama, originally appearing to be much more friendly to the Palestinian and Arab causes than George W. Bush, told Israel, "It is time for the settlements to stop." The president’s earlier position reinforced that of the United Nations and other international bodies: such settlement by the occupier of any territory conquered in war is against international law. The U.S. waffling demonstrates that despite Obama’s youth spent in a Muslim country and greater sensitivity to Islamic concerns than his predecessor, he will likely always be forced by domestic political considerations to come home to the mother ship of the Israeli lobby.
Conflict in Palestine started in the 1920s and was caused by Jewish immigration, beginning in the late 1800s, to a land they hadn’t populated in great numbers since the Roman Empire. To win Arab support against the Turks during World War I, Britain, attempting to expand its empire, cynically promised the Arabs postwar independence, which was not granted. Then to win support for the British war effort from the United States and its Jewish minority, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which promised the Jews a homeland (not a state). After having promised the same land to two peoples, Britain planned to withdraw from Palestine. In 1947, the UN voted to partition Palestine, but give the Jews – who owned only 6 percent of Palestine – a whopping 56 percent of the land.
As a result, Palestinians and Jews fought, and neighboring Arab countries attacked Israel when it provocatively declared itself a state in 1948. After this rebellion and war, in which the militarily stronger Israelis brutally ethnically cleansed the Palestinians from their land, the Jews owned even more of Palestine than the UN had bestowed on them – running the amount to more than 70 percent. Then came the war of 1967, which added the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. The Israelis have withdrawn from Gaza and the Sinai but not the Golan Heights or West Bank. Believing that possession is nine-tenths of the law, the Israelis began settling the occupied Golan Heights and West Bank. Currently, there are 280,000 Jews in 121 settlements on the West Bank and 190,000 in East Jerusalem.
In the West Bank, the Israelis have placed their settlements strategically – including along the Jordan River Valley, which forms the border of the West Bank farthest from Israel and which Israel wants to control after any settlement.
Israel will likely eventually settle the issue by giving the Palestinians some sort of state – whether by negotiated settlement or unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank (similar to the approach it took in Gaza). The reason: the Arab population within the West Bank and Israel proper is growing so fast that if Israel doesn’t cut the West Bank loose, Israel will likely lose its Jewish democratic identity by the institution of an apartheid South Africa-style system of minority rule. Yet this resolution will probably not happen for some time, because Israel wants to acquire as much strategic Palestinian land as it can through West Bank settlements before the time Jews become a minority in Israel and the West Bank.
Where does this leave the United States? The waffling by the Obama administration, betraying the overwhelming underlying domestic political forces supporting Israel, has severely undermined any perceived status the U.S. had as an honest broker in the already perpetually infuriating Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Because the United States cannot be a neutral moderator, it should turn that role over to others – Britain would be ideal, since it caused the problem in the first place – and exit the scene. After all, Palestine is hardly strategic to U.S. security.