US President Obama in the Oval Office puts “pressure” on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the other end of the line, June 2009. (Pete Souza/White House)
On 13 July, President Barack Obama received 16 leaders of the most prominent pro-Israel organizations at the White House. The gathering was an effort to assuage American Jewish concerns about US pressure on Israel over a settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank.
One participant argued that in the past any progress toward peace has only been made when there was “no light” between American and Israeli positions. “I disagree,” the president responded according to one witness, and pointed out that during eight years of the Bush administration, “there was no light between the United States and Israel, and nothing got accomplished.”
Obama reaffirmed his commitment to achieving a settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict and emphasized the short window and special opportunity that he had to produce one given his outreach efforts to Arabs and Muslims.
All of this will reinforce the faith of those convinced that Obama’s policies mark a decisive shift from his predecessors, a rupture in the Israeli-American relationship, and can produce what has eluded all others: a workable and agreed two-state solution.
Obama has consistently stressed his belief in the “unbreakable” US-Israeli relationship. Considering his actions and words so far, there is little reason to doubt him. But unless he is prepared to go much further than anyone has publicly contemplated in pressuring Israel, his peace initiative has negligible chances of success.
For months the focus has been on Obama’s demand that Israel agree to a complete cessation of settlement construction, including the subterfuge called “natural growth.” It was during a similar “freeze” in the early 1990s that Israel built thousands of settler housing units on occupied land. Arab optimism and Israeli anxiety were amplified as Obama and his Middle East Envoy George Mitchell said repeatedly that this time they wanted a total halt.
Yet the firmness shows signs of erosion. Israeli press reports spoke of a “compromise” taking shape in which Israel would be allowed to complete thousands of already planned housing units. Although those reports were denied by the United States, several participants in the White House meeting said Obama alluded to an unspecified compromise in the works.
Anything short of a complete cessation of settlement construction will mark an achievement for Israel; what is important is not the number of units the United States may approve, but the principle that this administration, like its predecessors, will license Israel’s illegal colonization. Once that principle is established, Israel may present more faits accomplis and build at will.
And even if Israel does agree to a verifiable cessation, the US has structured the matter as a quid pro quo in which Israel is not required to do anything without receiving a reward. The president has appealed to Arab states to normalize ties with Israel if it freezes settlements, including opening diplomatic missions and allowing overflights by El Al aircraft (recall that when en route to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, Israeli warplanes reportedly falsely identified themselves as commercial aviation). Given how little leverage the Arab side has, it would be totally disarmed if it conceded any such gestures in exchange for so little.
Israel’s settlements violate numerous UN Security Council resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention. It should no more be rewarded for ending settlement construction than Iraq should have been rewarded for withdrawing from Kuwait after Iraq invaded in 1990. While today US-occupied, war-torn Iraq is still paying Kuwait billions of dollars annually in compensation for a seven-month long occupation that ended almost two decades ago, the US is offering Israel prizes not for ending a 42-year-old occupation but merely for ceasing to commit some crimes.
This can hardly be described as anything other than a net gain for Israel, especially since the settlement project is reaching its natural conclusion. There are already 500,000 settlers in the West Bank, who with their infrastructure consume more than 42 percent of the land. Nothing Obama has ever said indicates he will deviate from his predecessors’ policy of recognizing these facts and demanding that Palestinians agree to let Israel keep settlements already built.
While all the attention is focused on the freeze, Israel maintains its siege of Gaza — despite Obama’s calls to loosen it — and continues to build the West Bank wall five years after the International Court of Justice ordered it torn down. The United States itself continues to undermine chances for intra-Palestinian reconciliation, and therefore credible negotiations, by fueling the smoldering civil war between US-backed Palestinian militias on the one hand and resistance factions led by Hamas on the other.
On the outside Israelis may be crying about US “pressure” but on the inside they must be quietly smiling.
Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. This article was originally published by bitterlemons-international and is republished with permission.