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Obama Settlement Stance Draws Fire From All Directions

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Though President Obama is reported to be taking an unprecedentedly harder line on Israel's settlement activities, expressed through statements by ranking officials in his administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, his continued failure to please everyone indicates the intractability of the issue. Steven J. Rosen, director of the Washington Project at the Middle East Forum, believes that the current administration's treatment of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is too heavy-handed. Writing on Foreign Policy's website, Rosen criticizes Obama for what he considers bad diplomacy and the poor treatment of America's closest ally:

It was an unusual way to welcome the new leader of a close friend of the United States. Why did the Obama team veer so sharply off the normal course? Diplomacy toward an ally normally begins with building relations of trust on areas of agreement, and only later engaging discreetly on issues where there are sharp differences. Why instead did the administration team roll out a campaign of diktats, beginning May 28 in front of cameras at a press conference with the Egyptian foreign minister, virtually nailing a decree to Netanyahu's door announcing that President Obama "wants to see a stop to settlements -- not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions," as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it. Why so dismissively brush aside understandings crafted by the George W. Bush's administration, understandings that had achieved a significant reduction of settlement construction albeit not a total freeze? Why would an unnamed source in the administration boast to the Washington Post on June 30, "We have not changed our position at all, nor has the president authorized any negotiating room"?

However, writing in the Wall Street Journal Thursday, vocal Israel advocate and Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz notes the distinction between pro-Israel and pro-Netanyahu. He concludes that Obama's strong anti-settlement stance is actually quite aligned with the views of most Israelis and Israel supporters, writing:

A majority of American-Jewish supporters of Israel, as well as Israelis, do not favor settlement expansion. Thus the Obama position on settlement expansion, whether one agrees with it or not, is not at all inconsistent with support for Israel. It may be a different position from that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it is not a difference that should matter to most Jewish voters who support both Mr. Obama and Israel.

However, Dershowitz is critical of the administration's elevation of the settlement issue to such a high diplomatic priority, rivaling that of a nuclear Iran:

The Obama administration consistently says that Iran should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. But prior to the current unrest in the Islamic Republic, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel frightened many supporters of Israel in May by appearing to link American efforts to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons to Israeli actions with regard to the settlements.

And yet, Obama's settlement stance has critics on the other side of the divide as well. New American fellow Flynt Leverett, also writing for Foreign Policy's website, doesn't think Obama is being strict enough because he has not yet declared settlement activity to be illegal, writing:

By shrinking from declaring Israeli settlement activity illegal, Obama has guaranteed that, in substance, his Middle East policy cannot depart significantly from that of George W. Bush. Obama's insipidly favorable response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conditional "acceptance" of the two-state formula underscores an unfortunate continuity in America's Middle East policy. In the end, Obama's Middle East policy is rooted in his predecessor's profoundly flawed 2003 road map for a two-state solution and the feckless process that Bush's secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice launched at Annapolis in 2007. Worse, in contrast to other policy mistakes made early in his presidential tenure, Obama will be hard put to reverse the damage done by his lack of clarity and courage on the settlements issue by coming back at a later date and arguing that Israeli settlements in occupied territory are, in fact, illegal.

The issue will no doubt continue to be a diplomatic flash point, with critics from every angle. Either way, the administration is moving forward to find some kind of compromise, with Israel-Palestine envoy George Mitchell meeting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in New York this week.


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