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Abraham H. Foxman

Abraham H. Foxman

Posted: July 24, 2009 05:13 PM

Unsettling Signs: The U.S. Takes on Israel on Settlements

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For years the Palestinians and leaders in the Arab world have complained that, when it comes to the Arab - Israeli conflict, the United States has acted like Israel's lawyer. While some may actually believe this is so and every American administration since the founding of the State of Israel has acknowledged the special relationship between the two countries, the record of U.S. policy toward many significant issues in the conflict shows something entirely different.

Nowhere has this been clearer than on the issue of Israel's practice of creating new communities in the West Bank. Successive administrations have objected to the practice from the beginning, albeit with varying degrees of intensity. U.S. policy on the status of Jerusalem has likewise not been one-sided in favor of Israel. What the Palestinians and their supporters seem to want is a U.S. policy that will force Israel to concede to Palestinian demands; to essentially tip the scales in favor of Palestinian positions.

Variations in the application of U.S. policy toward the conflict have occurred based on changing geopolitical circumstances in the region. Some of the most significant include the Cold War, Arab wars of aggression against Israel, a peace treaty with Egypt, the end of the Cold War, the Oslo Process, a peace treaty with Jordan, President Clinton's efforts at Camp David, the intifada and the resurgence of Palestinian terrorism inside Israel, Israeli military withdrawal from Southern Lebanon, the Road Map, the death of Yasser Arafat. In recent years there has been the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, the political rise of Hamas, the second Lebanon War, the violent takeover of Gaza by Hamas and its escalating barrage of rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli civilians and the Israel's military response.

Since the international Madrid conference in 1991, Israeli governments have consistently expressed and sought an end to the conflict with the Palestinians. Each step of the way, the U.S. has been actively engaged in trying to help the parties achieve this goal. President Obama has made resolving the conflict one of his highest priorities. He has clearly let the parties and the world know he is firmly committed to this goal. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been equally clear in reiterating Israel's commitment to achieving peace with the Palestinians. So why do some perceive a growing distance between the U.S. and Israel in pursuing this objective?

Netanyahu, well aware of U.S. policy toward expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, has announced that Israel will no longer confiscate property to establish new ones, will no longer provide economic incentives to Jewish Israelis to relocate to them and will dismantle illegal outposts in the West Bank. Did the U.S. offer any public support for these politically difficult decisions? No. Did the Palestinian Authority or any Arab leader acknowledge this as a positive step? No.

Netanyahu also announced that Israel was prepared to impose severe limitations on the further expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank. Likewise, there was no public support for this decision from the U.S. and no acknowledgement of progress from any Palestinian or Arab leader.

Israel has implemented an easing of the restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank by removing checkpoints and barriers and has accelerated the process of turning over to Palestinian security forces responsibility for security in certain Palestinian towns and cities. Where is U.S. public support and encouragement for these difficult steps? Where are the voices of Palestinian and Arab leaders noting the positive effects of these measures? There have been none.

Instead of public statements that would build Israeli confidence in the prospects of doing more, there is rigid public insistence by the Administration on the need to totally freeze all settlement activity. This is being interpreted by some as negotiating on behalf of the Palestinians on an issue that has always been a matter for final status talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

So, it is no surprise that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have concluded they have no obligation to take any further steps to fulfill their responsibilities until Israel complies with the U.S. demand. Recently, the Administration has taken on one of the most sensitive final status issues by publicly criticizing Israel for authorizing the construction of housing for Jewish families in a neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

At the White House meeting with Jewish leaders, President Obama told us he would try to correct the perception in the media that the Administration is exerting more pressure on Israel than on the Palestinians and Arab countries to act to move the peace process forward. In a major foreign policy address to the Council on Foreign Relations Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of the Palestinian responsibility "to improve and extend the positive actions already taken on security; to act forcefully against incitement; and to refrain from any action that would make meaningful negotiations less likely." She also stated that Arab states have a responsibility "to take steps to improve relations with Israel and to prepare their publics to embrace peace and accept Israel's place in the region."

Everyone understands how to measure compliance with a demand to "freeze" all settlement activity. But there is simply no way to objectively calculate improving and extending "positive actions on security" or acting "forcefully against incitement" or refraining "from any action that would make meaningful negotiations less likely." There is no way to quantify the "steps" Arab states should take "to improve relations with Israel" or "prepare their publics to embrace peace and accept Israel."

These are unsettling signs.