As the clash between the U.S. and Israeli governments over settlements in the occupied territories intensifies, many of Israel’s traditionally staunch defenders in Washington have been pushing back, tentatively but with increasing assertiveness, to urge the Barack Obama administration to alleviate its pressure on Israel.
The settlements battle has put these defenders in a delicate position, since Obama remains extremely popular among U.S. Jews, most of whom oppose settlement growth, and since a settlement freeze has been a core U.S. demand for decades under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Rather than opposing the administration outright on the settlement issue, therefore, most hawkish commentators and organizations have instead sought to persuade the administration to tone down its demands and seek a compromise — particularly one that would make dealing with Iran’s nuclear program a higher priority than an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, and would allow continued construction within settlement blocs close to the Israeli border.
Some hawks have also launched what many see as a concerted media campaign to portray Obama’s settlement push as being on the brink of failure, and box the administration into backing down on settlements.
Despite reports to the contrary, however, the administration has so far shown no signs of letting up on the settlement issue, suggesting that the clash between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to come to a head. Already, Netanyahu’s refusal to stop a planned building project in East Jerusalem has ratcheted up the intensity of the diplomatic conflict.
"Settlements were a difficult issue to defend, so the conservative establishment in the [U.S. Jewish] community made the argument that the disagreements shouldn’t be in public, and there should be pressure on the Arabs to do more," former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy, now a fellow at the New American Foundation and the Century Foundation, told IPS.
"Now there will be a third component to their pushback, which is Jerusalem, but I do not think this will gain serious traction, nor will it divert the administration from their course," he said.
From the outset of the settlements battle, prominent and traditionally hawkish pro-Israel organizations have walked a fine line in discussing the administration’s policy.
To be sure, a few notably hardline groups have given outright expressions of support for the settlers and denunciations of Obama’s policy.
The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), for example, issued a statement saying that "it is utterly racist and anti-Semitic to suggest that Jews cannot build within the borders…of their communities in Judea and Samaria", referring to the West Bank using the terminology of the pro-settler movement.
Similarly, pastor John Hagee, head of the controversial group Christians United for Israel (CUFI), defended on Tuesday "Israel’s sovereign right to grow and develop the settlements of Israel as you see fit and not yield to the pressure of the United States government."
But most mainstream Jewish organizations have been wary of appearing out of step with the administration. ZOA was notably excluded from a meeting held Jul. 13 at the White House between Obama and the leaders of major Jewish organizations
More typical was the statement of David Harris, president of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
"To be sure, the settlements are an issue," Harris wrote on the website of the Jerusalem Post, in a piece that was adapted from his remarks to Senate Democrats earlier this week. "But they are not the underlying cause of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. They should be addressed in the context of negotiations, not treated as a sine qua non for talks, as Palestinian leaders are doing now."
Harris also stated that "Israel cannot and will not return to the fragile armistice lines of 1967," suggesting that Israel would have to keep possession of close-in settlement blocs in any final status agreement.
Many of those criticizing Obama’s stance on settlements argue that Israel should be permitted to continue building in these blocs to accommodate "natural growth" of their existing populations.
They point to agreements that were allegedly brokered between the governments of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon by Bush’s top Middle East aide, Elliott Abrams, and in particular to a 2004 letter from Bush to Sharon recognizing Israel’s right to these settlement blocs.
Abrams himself has argued that Obama should recognize these agreements and desist in his calls for a full settlement freeze throughout the occupied territories.
However, Sharon’s former chief of staff Dov Weissglas told The Washington Times on Wednesday that no such agreement was ever finalized because the U.S. and Israel never agreed on where construction would be permitted.
Critics also note that excepting "natural growth" from a settlement freeze has in recent years served as a loophole serving to legitimize all settlement growth, and the Obama administration has accordingly refused to make a natural growth exception.
On Monday, Abrams attracted more controversy when he wrote an article for National Review Online claiming that the U.S. had backed off its demands for a total freeze and was now asking for a compromise that would allow all construction projects underway to be completed.
Abrams also cited unnamed reports that Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, plans to leave the administration at the end of the year.
Mitchell responded by calling reports about his planned retirement "an utter fabrication", reported The Cable, a blog on the website of Foreign Policy magazine.
Other experts similarly dismiss Abrams’s claim that the Obama administration is on the verge of accepting a compromise solution.
"We are quite confident that the Obama administration is standing by its demand that Israel’s government live up to its commitment to freeze all settlement activity and dismantle illegal outposts in the West Bank," Ori Nir, spokesman for the group Americans for Peace Now (APN), told IPS.
In early July, a senior administration official rebutted similar rumors of an imminent compromise, telling The Washington Post that "we have not changed our position at all…nor has the president authorized any negotiating room."
Besides Abrams, several other hardline supporters of Israel have argued recently that Obama’s Israel-Palestine policy is floundering — a trend that some analysts see as a concerted media campaign to shape public perceptions.
"A number of… remarkably similar pieces over the last few days…have seemed geared towards creating the impression that Obama’s strong position on Israeli settlements have backfired and put his overall policy in jeopardy," wrote Marc Lynch, a Middle East scholar at George Washington University, on the Foreign Policy website.
Lynch dismisses these arguments as "advice from those who aren’t worried that [Obama will] fail, they want him to fail …The objective, most likely, is to derail his push towards a two-state solution that they fear might succeed and to embolden those who are uncomfortable with his approach but had been unwilling to challenge a popular President."
It was in part to reassure Jewish community leaders about his push on settlements that Obama held his Jul. 13 meeting with them at the White House. By most accounts, the meeting was a success, with Obama restating his commitment to Israel’s security and the attendees offering expressions of support for the administration.
However, tensions have increased once again following Netanyahu’s Sunday announcement that a planned Israeli housing development in East Jerusalem will proceed despite U.S. protests, and his defiant proclamation that Israeli sovereignty over a "united Jerusalem …cannot be challenged."
Since all major plans for a two-state solution involve Palestinian control of East Jerusalem as a capital city, Netanyahu’s statement posed a direct challenge to the Obama administration’s policy, and thrust the settlements debate back into the spotlight.
While the results of the current clash over Jerusalem remain to be seen, some prominent Jewish groups have already lined up with Netanyahu.
On Tuesday, the hawkish and influential Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a statement calling the administration’s objections to the proposed building project "disturbing."
(Inter Press Service)