Showdown Looming Over Israeli Settlements

JERUSALEM – A showdown over Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is looming between Israel and the United States barely a week after the encounter at the White House between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What’s becoming increasingly clear is that the May 18 encounter was no friendly getting-to-know-you meeting between a new president and a new prime minister of the Middle East’s most enduring alliance.

IPS has learned from sources in Netanyahu’s Washington entourage that following the White House meeting, the Israeli PM confided his "unease" to wealthy U.S. conservative supporters about the direction in which the Obama administration is headed.

Since his return home, the Israeli leader has been putting on a brave face, sometimes even bordering on bravado. He was, however, clearly shaken. Not so much from any dramatically new specific policy moves that were laid out by the U.S. – what resonates with Netanyahu is what President Obama had to say about halting settlements and what that portends for the U.S. Middle East policy-in-the-making.

The concern expressed itself again at Sunday’s weekly meeting of the Israeli government. Netanyahu opened the meeting by sharing with his colleagues the Obama demand for a total freeze on all settlement activity, including no new homes in existing settlements to accommodate what Israel calls "natural population growth."

Netanyahu dug in his heels, although he tried to couch the impending set-to in a mild manner. No new settlements would be built, he told his cabinet colleagues, but settlement expansion should go on, for all the U.S. objections: "Not to address the question of natural growth is simply not fair," the prime minister said.

A close Netanyahu political ally, Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, added: "There is one thing to which we just cannot agree – that the government agenda will look like a witch-hunt against the settlers and the drying up of the settlements."

And Defense Minister Ehud Barak lined up behind Netanyahu: "It’s not conceivable that anyone seriously intends that a family with two children who have bought a small apartment will be told that an order has come from the U.S. that they may not add two extra rooms when the family grows – that’s illogical," Barak said.

The Israeli position is most unlikely to satisfy the U.S. Netanyahu seems fully aware that this could be just the beginning of a major row with Washington. He thus appears to be preparing to parry the comprehensive U.S. "no" on settlements by backing the intention of the Israeli defense establishment finally to move on so-called illegal settlements (small outposts that were established on the fringes of government-approved settlements in order to expand Israeli control over Palestinian territory).

The day Netanyahu came back, the army pulled down one such wildcat settlement, but within hours the settlers had rebuilt the outpost. Now, though, the Defense Ministry confirms that a comprehensive plan is being drawn up to dismantle 23 mini-settlements created since 2001 without government approval.

Israeli Public Radio quoted sources in the prime minister’s office as confirming that Netanyahu would "stand firm behind" Defense Minister Ehud Barak if he concludes that a showdown with the "illegal" settlers is required. This, even at the risk of an improbable showdown with his own nationalist coalition: "We are first and foremost obliged to respect the law," Netanyahu insisted at Sunday’s cabinet meeting.

Obama urged the ending of settlement building in order to lay the ground for a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said there is no point in meeting Netanyahu unless he stops settlement construction and agrees to open talks on Palestinian independence.

Over the years, successive Israeli governments have sanctioned 121 settlements, with the settlers themselves putting up an additional 100 or so small outposts since the early 1990s. The overall settler population is around 280,000.

It’s becoming clear that the approach of the administration is now widely accepted in the U.S. Congress, traditionally a stronghold of support for Israel.

A five-person congressional delegation from the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia said after meeting Israeli officials in Jerusalem on Sunday that they were "skeptical" about the Netanyahu government’s ability to help the U.S. move the peace process with the Palestinians forward. The committee voiced specific concern about Israel’s insistence on "natural growth" in existing settlements.

The heat that Netanyahu took during his tête-à-tête with Obama has clearly left its mark. He’s even going so far as to try to build on an informal agreement reached on settlement construction between his predecessor Ehud Olmert and the Bush administration prior to the 2007 Annapolis conference at which the U.S., Israel, and the Palestinians mapped out possible directions on how to proceed toward peace.

"The understandings Olmert reached, especially on the right to ‘natural growth,’ contain clauses that can certainly form a basis for understandings with the Obama administration," said one official in the prime minister’s office.

"Is there still a need for clarification?" asked a critic of Netanyahu, former government minister and peace activist Yossi Sarid. In his newspaper column "Peace Diplomacy," Sarid asked rhetorically, "Though he pretends not to understand, have the disputes not been clarified to Benjamin Netanyahu’s satisfaction? From all roofs in Washington – the White House, the State Department, and Congress – birds sing out U.S. policy. The diplomatic picture could not be clearer. We don’t really need a detailed peace plan, because it’s already here on the table."

Sarid continues: "It’s not simply an American plan, but a global plan acceptable to everyone but this Israeli government. Netanyahu alone continues his rearguard battle, dragging on and on this epic Israeli tragedy. Only one issue remains unclear – can Obama succeed where his predecessors have failed? Can he stand his ground where American power has faltered for decades?"

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.