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Will Clinton Issue Challenge to Israel on Settlements?

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/03/clinton-russia-480x332.jpgSecretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to Moscow on Thursday (EPA/ZUMApress.com)

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the America Israel Public Affairs Committee conference on Monday morning, she’ll be addressing a global audience eager for clues about the future of the Mideast peace process and the U.S.-Israel relationship after last week’s diplomatic tumult over Jerusalem settlements. Those in the peace camp wonder if the natural impulse to defuse the tension will lead Clinton to paper over the Israeli government’s plans for continuing settlement construction in Jerusalem — or whether she will continue her challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also scheduled to speak at the conference, to demonstrate his commitment to peace.

[Security1] The initial announcement last week — during Vice President Biden’s goodwill visit to Israel — of an expansion of 1,600 new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of Jerusalem has obscured even greater settlement construction in the planning stages. Peace Now, the leading Israeli progressive non-government organization, released a report last week documenting “18 plans to build 7,094 new housing units for Jewish population in East Jerusalem, and another 1,450 hotel rooms,” as well as a still-unpublished plan to build another 2,337 units on top of that. The construction occurs in areas of Jerusalem seized by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed in 1980, a move that the United Nations rejected as illegal. Clinton said the announcement of the Ramat Shlomo settlement expansion occurring during Biden’s visit was “an insult to the United States.” So far, however, Netanyahu has not backed away from the Ramat Shlomo plan, despite more than a week’s worth of diplomatic acrimony. And no Obama official has yet publicly challenged Netanyahu on the additional settlement expansions Peace Now documented.

“Clinton’s speech should clearly explain, to Israel and to its friends in America, why settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem are so destructive,” Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir said. “She should say that they both prejudge the outcome of the negotiations and that they send a message to the Palestinians, which reverberates worldwide, that Israel’s government is not serious about peace.”

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/03/settlement-map-245x186.jpgA map of settlements in East Jersusalem. Click to enlarge. (Courtesy of Peace Now)

The Obama administration took office in the wake of Israel’s operations against Hamas in Gaza, a move that heightened Palestinian reluctance to return to negotiations for an independent state. Obama’s team vowed to breathe diplomatic life into the process, and pressed the new Netanyahu to agree to a freeze on settlement construction as a gesture of good faith. Instead, Netanyahu resisted for months, stalling momentum for the process and creating bitterness between Jerusalem and Washington for which each blamed the other. In November, Netanyahu agreed to a partial freeze on settlement construction for ten months that excluded East Jerusalem — further angering the Palestinians. On the eve of Biden’s visit, both sides agreed to “indirect” talks heavily mediated by administration envoy George Mitchell, who scrapped a trip to the region after the Ramat Shlomo announcement.

Speaking in Russia on Thursday, Clinton indicated that the Obama administration would move forward with a rescheduled Mitchell visit in the near future even if Netanyahu did not back down on Ramat Shlomo. “Our goals remain the same,” Clinton told reporters. “It is to re-launch negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians on a path that will lead to a two-state solution. Nothing has happened that in any way affects our commitment to pursuing that.”

Amjad Atallah, director of the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force and a former legal adviser to Palestinian peace negotiators, pointed out that the Palestinians and the Arab world at large have felt let down by Obama’s inability to break the diplomatic stalemate. “Having an administration that so obviously wants peace but seems so obviously unable to deliver it is more disheartening than thinking the United States was a bad guy to begin with,” Atallah said in an email. “Having said that, the love in the love affair (even if temporarily sour) is still there.”

Similarly sour are the feelings between the Obama administration and the more conservative wings of the pro-Israel community. That sourness took an unexpected turn at an unexpected target this week. On Tuesday, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East and South Asia, testified to a Senate panel that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel,” destabilizes moderate regimes and gives a pretext to extremists. In response, the Anti-Defamation League’s longtime national director, Abraham Foxman, called Petraeus’ comments “dangerous and counterproductive.” It is the first time Petraeus has been criticized by a lobby group since the progressive activist organization MoveOn questioned his integrity during his 2007 Iraq testimony.

Most observers expect Clinton to sound decidedly reconciliatory notes in her AIPAC address. Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who works with Atallah at the New America Foundation, encouraged Clinton to pivot to productive moves on peace negotiations — especially the presentation of the administration’s own peace plan. “Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has often drawn the analogy between ending the conflict and cutting off the tail of a dog – in other words, you do both in one chop, not incremental snips,” Levy said. “When it is ready to lead rather than be led, the administration should place a clear choice of an implementation plan for two states in front of Israel and stick to that plan.” Levy added that Netanyahu’s embrace of settlement expansion “may strengthen American resolve to put forward such a plan.”

Peace Now’s Nir agreed that Clinton should use the speech to assert the administration’s vision for a two-state solution to the 60-year crisis. Clinton’s speech should include a “clear call for both Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table immediately, without preconditions, and negotiate a workable solution to the conflict. She should make clear that such a solution is within reach, that it can and should be part of a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement between Israel and the entire Arab world, that the US has a good idea of what such a settlement would look like and that Washington will not hesitate to assert its vision,” Nir said. “Such a speech, delivered at this critical time and place, could be a transformative junction on the road to peace.”

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