The other weapon: A Jewish settler rebuilds the illegal Maoz Esther outpost near the Jewish settlement of Kokhav Hashahar, northeast of the West Bank city of Ramallah, immediately after it was demolished by Israeli forces. It's a game settlers and Israeli authorities play, mostly for the cameras, with one certain outcome: settlements continue to grow. ( Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
They've positioned themselves.
President Obama, who'll be laying out his plan for Mideast peace in a speech in Cairo Thursday, wants a freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. No exceptions, no lawyerly definitions of what is and isn't a settlement, no sophistry. In Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's words, "the President was very clear when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here. He wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions." (I've been harsh about Clinton's performance at the State Department to date. For once, she did not disappoint, though a day later she spoke in softer language.)
So of course there'll be settlement activity. There has been. There will continue to be. Israel's pledge to freeze settlement activity in one way or another is an old trick, a ritual that shadows its empty promises at every turn of the peace process. It promised to freeze settlement activity after the Oslo peace accords in 1993. Settlement populations have virtually tripled since, from around 125,000 back then to 300,000 today, not counting Arab East Jerusalem, where some 200,000 Israelis have moved in.
Settlement pledges are door mats for Israeli leaders to wipe their feet on, on their way to approving new settlement expansions.
"According to the newly disclosed data," The Times reports just this week, "about 58,800 housing units have been built with government approval in the West Bank settlements over the past 40 years. An additional 46,500 have already obtained Defense Ministry approval within the existing master plans, awaiting nothing more than a government decision to build."
At the current growth rate, those 46,500 units would be built before 2030. It's not only the Kashgars who are suffering a "silent demographic genocide," to use Colin Thubron's phrase.
What Netanyahu calls "natural growth" is what Palestinians call expropriation by the same old means.
In the Netanyahu view, the 120 existing settlements (and most of the "outposts," or illegal settlements, which Netanyahu will never dismantle on his watch) must be allowed to "grow." But the principle of legitimate natural growth in settlements isn't just absurd because the settlements are illegal to begin with. It's absurd on its face as a demographic argument even if the settlements were legitimate. A subdivision platted for so many houses won't have to grow and add yet more houses just because some babies are born in some of those houses. He equates a newborn in those settlements with the justification for a new house. Ergo, expansion as "natural growth." It's one of those exquisitely Israeli inventions that apply in proportion to its potential to expropriate, and in inverse proportion to what an urban planner constricted by laws and regulations would consider just.
But none of this is about justice. None of it is about logic, or "natural growth" or whatever euphemism Netanyahu and settler extremists revel in wrapping, like nooses, around Palestinian claims. It's about running out the clock on the mere feasibility of reaching a solution on settlements. In the Sinai after the Camp David agreement with Egypt it was relatively simple to remove a few thousand settlers. Same story in Gaza. But in the West Bank? Impossible. So the question is: if settlers are immovable, why not make Israel's claim on the West Bank immutable? That's the game.
Obama wants to end the game. He has big ideas, big ideals, but he doesn't appear to have the greatest backbone this side of Mr. Universe. At least not so far. After standing his ground with Netanyahu at the White House and talking tough on settlements since, he's backtracked somewhat. As The Times had it, "On the eve of a visit to the Middle East and Europe, President Obama on Tuesday played down a dispute with Israel over his demand for a suspension of further Jewish settlement in the West Bank but reiterated his call for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians that Israel’s hawkish leaders have not accepted."
Raise expectations. Then lower them. Netanyahu's government barely has a coalition to stand on. Obama has as close to a mandate as any president has had on this Palestinian-Israeli issue since, I venture to say, Dwight Eisenhower. And what does he do? Play cloak-and-Kissinger: he gives the appearance of talking tough to Israel, all the while reverting to an Israel-first policy that, as he himself said a few days ago, is neither in America's interest nor in Israel's long-term interest.
The great Amos Elon isn't yet in it but already turning before reaching his grave. (The Israeli writer died on Monday.) "The vast settlement project after 1967, aside from being grossly unjust, has been self-defeating and politically ruinous," he wrote in 2002. "The settlement project has not provided more security but less. It may yet, I tremble at the thought, lead to results far more terrible than those we are now witnessing."
If only voices like Elon's were those Obama was filling his head with. Unfortunately, he may be disproportionately worried about other voices--loud, even loud-mouthed, but, like most loud-mouths, rarely wise.
And all this before touching down in Cairo.
- Israeli Settlements in the West Bank - Numbers, Statistics and Law (Updated)
- West Bank Settlements, Israeli Lies, American Rice-Throwing
- How Obama Can Resolve the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
- Obama and the Middle East: A Guide
- Obama and Israel: Analysis of Barack Obama's AIPAC Speech
- Netanyahu's Aipac Speech: What he Didn't Say
- AIPAC - The American Israel Public Affairs Committee
- United Nations Resolution 446 (1979) on Israeli West Bank Settlements: Text and Context
- Israel's Security Fence and Separation Barrier
- Israel to pump $250m into settlements