Trying to Trap Obama on Settlements Isn’t Going to Work, Bibi
The Netanyahu government in Israel is claiming that the Bush administration had a secret deal with Netanyahu’s predecessors to allow Israel to continue settlement construction in the West Bank, despite the fact that the 2003-era road map for Israeli-Palestinian peace explicitly “freezes all settlement activity.” Some Bush-era officials dispute that they ever reached such a deal, and Israeli officials conceded to The New York Times that “not everything” in the alleged wink-wink-deal “is written down.” But whether or not the deal actually exists, Netanyahu’s gambit is transparent. What, you tell us that we have to fulfill roadmap commitments made by previous governments and stop “natural growth” in the settlements, his government tells the Obama administration. *Well, then you have to honor secret commitments made by your predecessor, too — and let us expand the settlements! Checkmate! *
But it doesn’t work that way. First, the road map is an international agreement, not a bilateral behind-closed-doors handshake. If there’s actually a secret Bush-Ariel Sharon-era deal, as Matthew Yglesias writes, let’s see it. The fact that anonymous Israeli officials caution that it wasn’t all written down suggests that its importance is probably exaggerated, to say the least. Furthermore, for Netanyahu to pull this kind of stunt on Obama is foolishly counterproductive. The objective differences in power between Israel and the U.S. mean that Israel sustains more damage by frustrating the U.S. than the other way around. Trying to catch the Obama administration in tiresome legalese exposes Israel as an intransigent party for peace, jeopardizing one of the only international prestige assets it possesses — namely, the widespread perception that the Palestinians are more intransigent than the Israelis are.
Then there’s the broader problem with the “natural growth” line from the Israeli right. Gershom Gorenberg has an excellent piece in The American Prospect today about trying to buy a house in the settlements that details how even opposition Knesset members call a freeze on “natural growth” equivalent to “an edict forbidding my daughters to give birth to my grandchildren,” as if your kids have the right to live next door to you on land that belongs to your neighbors. Gershom provides the necessary historical perspective:
Settlements were established as part of a deliberate and controversial gambit, an attempt to lock Israel into keeping the occupied territories. A settlement freeze or evacuation has always been a possibility. “What will we say to a family living with one child, which now has four or five children? That the children will move to Petah Tikva?” asked Hershkovitz, referring to one of Tel Aviv’s large satellite cities. Well, yes. The whole family, or any grown children, could move inside Israel.
Greater tragedies have happened than a policy that would lead Jews to live in, you know, the state of Israel. Such greater tragedies have been happening to the Palestinians for almost 42 years. It takes a particular myopia not to grasp that, and a particular chutzpah to try and use that non-injustice as a cudgel against Israel’s patron and ally in Washington.