From the NYT:
“Senior Israeli officials accused President Obama on Wednesday of failing to acknowledge what they called clear understandings with the Bush administration that allowed Israel to build West Bank settlement housing within certain guidelines while still publicly claiming to honor a settlement “freeze.” (…)
The Israeli officials said that repeated discussions with Bush officials starting in late 2002 resulted in agreement that housing could be built within the boundaries of certain settlement blocks as long as no new land was expropriated, no special economic incentives were offered to move to settlements and no new settlements were built. (…)
But a former senior official in the Bush administration disagreed, calling the Israeli characterization “an overstatement.”
“There was never an agreement to accept natural growth,” the official said Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. “There was an effort to explore what natural growth would mean, but we weren’t able to reach agreement on that.”
Even if there had been an agreement, so what? The Bush administration does not have the power to bind future administrations in perpetuity, especially not without writing anything down. In this particular case, any such agreement would have been incredibly unwise, not only for us but also for Israel.
There are a lot of things standing in the way of peace in the Middle East. But one is surely the fact that the Israeli government has never been serious about stopping settlement in the West Bank, and another is that while the United States has felt free to criticize the Palestinians for not living up to their commitments, it has never been serious about holding the Israeli government to its word. The fact that Obama seems to be in earnest about freezing the settlements is good for both parties.
I suspect that the relative lack of Congressional pushback against the Obama administration’s willingness to get serious on this point is in part the result of the Israeli government’s brutality in Gaza. The Israeli government has been acting as though it actually wanted to undermine American support for Israel, and cause people to ask: why, exactly, do we have to give Israel unconditional backing, no matter what it does? (Note: this is very different from wondering why we should support Israel at all.) It should not be surprised to find that its actions have consequences.
From the outset, Israel’s settlement policy has been designed to create ‘facts on the ground’ that will be impossible to reverse. And ‘natural growth’ is not just a matter of adding a room to an existing house, or new “gardens and classrooms“. Peace Now claims that the government plans to build 73,000 new homes in West Bank settlements under the rubric of “natural growth”, and has already approved 15,156. The government disputes this figure: it says the real number that has been approved is “only” 11,530. That’s still a lot of homes, for a lot of people, on land that virtually no one believes Israel is legally entitled to build on.
I agree with Joe Klein:
“The fact is, Israel has to do much more than freeze settlements: it needs to dismantle them, and open up the West Bank roads exclusively used by Jewish settlers to Palestinian use; and tear down the barrier wall in any locale that doesn’t conform to the 1967 green line. It certainly needs to send a clear message to the extremists who are rioting on the West Bank today, in support of their illegal outposts–that this sort of behavior will no longer be tolerated. If Israel is going to demand–rightly–that the Palestinians control their terrorists, Israel is going to have to crack down on its own provocateurs.”