Hillary Clinton’s blunt public statement that President Obama "wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions" made for good headlines. The Israelis were shocked and upset that their slavish ally had acted slightly less obsequious and engaged in a public spat with them.
This ballyhooed baby step came after Obama had raised halting Israeli settlements in the West Bank privately with hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House – only to get the push back that, at minimum, Israel would have to allow the "natural growth" of settlements to match population expansion.
Yet Obama is only one of a string of U.S. presidents, beginning with Ronald Reagan, to press the Israelis to stop such settlement activity. Despite billions in U.S. military and economic aid to Israel, the Israelis won’t even accommodate this seemingly modest U.S. request.
That’s because the request is not modest and cuts to the heart of Israeli strategy. With current demographic trends, even many on the Israeli Right realize that Israel will eventually have to acquiesce to a two-state solution. If the West Bank and Gaza aren’t jettisoned, Arab population expansion, which is higher than Jewish growth, will eventually make the Jews minority rulers in an ostensibly democratic state – similar to apartheid South Africa. Thus, if democracy with a Jewish majority is to be preserved, the Palestinians will have to be given some sort of a state.
That said, the longer that outcome can be delayed, the better for Israel because proliferating and expanding Jewish settlements can continue – thereby grabbing greater amounts of the best Palestinian land and leaving the Palestinians the meager scraps. Any affirmative Israeli response to U.S. pressure to halt settlements would ruin this underlying Israeli strategy of getting more Palestinian land while the gettin’s good.
Of course, these continued Israeli salami tactics have weakened the moderate Palestinian leadership, which has nothing to show for its years of negotiation with Israel, and vastly strengthened the more strident Hamas, which does not acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. Thus, Israel may wait too long to accept and implement the two-state solution so that it is no longer possible. Thus, the Israelis will be forced to give up their ideal of a Jewish democracy for an apartheid-style minority rule.
But the real question may be why the United States should care. For the U.S., what Israel does is more a domestic issue than a national security concern. After the Cold War, a U.S. alliance with Israel gets the United States very little and merely antagonizes Middle Eastern oil producing nations. Although the United States gives Israel billions in aid every year, Israel is in the driver’s seat in the bilateral relationship because U.S. politicians – both Democratic and Republican – feel they need the support of the powerful Israeli lobby to get elected.
The moral claim that Israel is a small, embattled democracy surrounded by Arab dictatorships is nullified by the fact that much of Israel sits on land stolen by force of arms. Prior to the ethnic cleansing of Arabs before and during Israel’s 1948 "war for independence," Jews owned only 7 percent of the land in Palestine. After the ethnic cleansing, Jews possessed more than 70 percent of that land. Thus, like much of the land that is now the United States, even Israel proper was stolen from indigenous peoples and will not be given back. Israel, contrary to the myth of the David among Goliaths, has always been much stronger militarily than the Arabs and will not return Israel proper. So the United States has focused on getting the Palestinians some scrap of land that Israel might someday be willing to give up.
But why? On the one hand, the many U.S. presidential administrations – including that of Barack Obama – have pressured Israel to give the Palestinians land, and on the other hand – with huge amounts of military and economic aid and unflinching political support – they have made it less likely that Israel will do so. Albert Einstein said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is insanity. U.S. policy is therefore insane. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not going to be solved anytime soon, and worrying about it deflects the Obama administration’s attention from more important problems.
Likewise, Palestinians continue to hope and expect the United States to pressure Israel to give them a state. But given U.S. domestic politics, the U.S. government is incapable of being an honest broker and therefore is unlikely to be of real help to the Palestinians.
Finally, massive U.S. aid and knee-jerk political support for Israel merely helps the Israelis continue their dysfunctional policy. If they would give up occupied land and settle the Palestinian issue, they could have much better relations with all of their Arab neighbors. Everyone in the region could get richer together.
Thus, U.S. policy toward Palestine is costly, a waste of time, and of no help to the real interests of the Palestinian or Israeli people. The United States should follow the physician’s motto of "do no harm" and withdraw from the field.