No Expansion vs. Freeze: Obama's Dilemma over Israeli Settlements

[Washington Institute for Near East Policy] David Makovsky - The Obama administration hopes that its efforts will promote peace talks, but so far, the president's approach has had the reverse effect. The U.S. has raised Arab expectations of a settlement freeze to a level that may be impossible to meet. In fact, PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas declared that he will not negotiate with Israel without a full settlement freeze. Saudi Arabia's refusal to cooperate with Mitchell's peace gestures also creates speculation about whether other Arab states will keep their promises. The settlement impasse has also impacted the dynamic of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship. Netanyahu is known to have felt blindsided by Obama when, without advance warning, he raised the idea of a settlement freeze during their first meeting. The Obama administration has stated that it wants Israel to stop not only outward expansion - which could be seen as territorially encroaching on a future Palestinian state - but also construction within preexisting settlements, vertical or otherwise. So far, the Obama administration has not forwarded a public rationale for this stance, but privately, U.S. officials say that brokering a total freeze would be much easier than the difficult project of monitoring the expansion of each settlement. Netanyahu opposes the freeze idea as being impractical, since school classrooms, synagogues, and other similar buildings need to be built within existing settlements. He worries that the suggested moratorium lacks an exit strategy, which would leave Israel as the scapegoat if the moratorium unravels. Israelis see the prime minister's position on vertical growth within settlements as reasonable and Obama's statements as rigid. Israel asserts that it reached a verbal understanding with the U.S. in spring 2003, enabling Israel to accept the Quartet-endorsed Roadmap peace plan, support the creation of a Palestinian state, and ultimately even withdraw from Gaza. According to the Israelis, a delegation of U.S. officials, led by then deputy national security advisor Steve Hadley, flew to Israel on May 1, 2003, to meet with Ariel Sharon to hammer out settlement principles. The two sides agreed that Israel could build within settlements so long as it constructed no new ones, engaged in no more land expropriations, and provided no financial incentives to settlers to move to the West Bank. Whatever happened in 2003, Israel's perception of the episode will cause it to question the validity of any future verbal agreement with the U.S. It seems unlikely that the U.S. and Israel will reach a sustainable freeze on settlements, other than as a short-term symbolic gesture. Nonetheless, a more sustainable no-expansion agreement is attainable, one that deals with the central issue of territorial enlargement. A nonexpansion approach might have ended the current impasse months ago, and genuine peace negotiations could already be in process.

2009-08-10 06:00:00

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