Taking on the sacred cow of Israeli settlements construction in the West Bank has historically been a fool's errand for American presidents.
Caught between Israel's concerned supporters at home (many of whom do not appreciate the complexity of the issue) and domestic Israeli politics, no amount of presidential arm-twisting between strong allies seems to have slowed their growth or stopped their spread, even though successive Israeli governments since 1993 have pledged to ice the construction.
Both Labor and Likud leaders have talked the talk, but rarely walked the walk away from that ever so tantalizing next hammer swing. But each swing of that hammer has only dealt another blow to the vision of a viable Palestinian state, as well as a safe and secure Jewish and democratic state of Israel.
I commend President Obama for demanding a deep freeze on settlement construction. Unlike his predecessors, Obama appears no longer willing to engage in the vexing winking and nodding that has characterized American attitudes to settlement growth in the past.
I take that stand as a passionate Zionist dedicated to Israel's freedom and security, who just as passionately believes in the right of Palestinians to have their own state living peacefully and viably side-by-side with a Jewish and democratic state of Israel.
One only need know first-hand the true situation on the ground in the West Bank to understand why these two beliefs inherently are at peace with each other.
When I undertook the first Congressional assessment of the plight of Palestinian refugees for Senator Kennedy's Senate Subcommittee on Refugees back in 1973, I realized then, as I know now, that the construction of settlements, let alone their so-called "natural growth" is patently self-defeating to Israel's desire for Palestinians to drop their demand for the so-called "Right of Return."
How can Palestinians establish a viable homeland if there is no land on which to resettle refugees on the West Bank?
All one need do is to visit those squalid camps to appreciate how important it is to get those thousands upon thousands of Palestinian refugees resettled into normal lives and out from the poverty-provoking extremism that is bred through every open sewer that permeates so many refugee camps - thanks no less to a Palestinian leadership, particularly Arafat, who found it politically expedient to maintain the camps.
On Monday, Benjamin Netanyahu characterized President Obama's demand to freeze all settlement construction east of the so-called Green Line as "unreasonable," thus needlessly putting his government at risk for creating a first, public breach of confidence with the new President.
What appears to many "unreasonable" is an Israeli leader arbitrarily instigating a rift with the White House for purely domestic political calculations at a time when President Obama is packing his bags for a critical trip to the Middle East to rebuild support for a two state solution which would reduce the region's threats to Israel.
What is even more "unreasonable" is failing to incentivize those settlers who demand "natural growth" to do so back inside Israel if desire bigger homes. How about some subprime mortgages for those willing to resettle back inside Israel?
In an attempt to quell the contretemps, Netanyahu dispatched Defense Minister Ehud Barak to negotiate an exception for the "natural growth" of existing settlements, which Netanyahu's coalition is trying to peddle as something authorized by President Bush to then Prime Minister Sharon.
Hogwash! There was no such bargain and Barak should have saved the airfare.
Indeed, U.S. intel shown to Israelis proves that the Israel continued its construction AFTER the 2007 Annapolis Summit whereat Prime Minister Olmert pledged to end settlement expansion.
But that begs the point about the nature of these settlements and the broader goals and objectives of the United States in helping to restore much needed American credibility to the peace making process.
My close friends in the American Jewish community who reflexively empathize with Israel need to understand what really is going on here because the Netanyahu Government is trying to have its cake and eat it, too.
Given so much emotion and understandable ignorance over what exactly is taking place in West Bank settlement construction here is a basic primer.
About 280,000 Israeli citizens populate 121 West Bank settlements, excluding Israelis living in East Jerusalem.
There are roughtly 3 categories of Israel settlements on the West Bank:
1. Contiguous settlements blocs (composed of communities like Maale Adumim east of Jerusalem) now so fully integrated into Israel that even Palestinian negotiators recognize they will inevitably become part of Israel in exchange for territorial concessions elsewhere in a final status negotiation. It is in these communities where the vast majority of the almost 300,000 Israeli settlers now reside.
2. Approximately 80-90 settlements that have been constructed east of the so-called Green Line outside the integrated settlement communities around Jerusalem (which under both Labor and Likud Governments have been placed on Israel's utility grids and linked by roads to Israel) which are the subject of President Obama's rapt attention.
It is these settlements where all of the bilateral controversy has broken out over so called "natural growth." Many, but not all of these are those that would have to be "deconstructed" to pave the way for a two-state solution.
3. Outposts (numbering perhaps 22 or so) constructed since 2001 by extremist zealots which even the Netanyahu government admits are patently illegal which Netanyahu has signaled his intention to tear down, using force if necessary.
Just as importantly, there are thousands of religious settlers (many of whom are fundamentally fanatics) on the far ideological right of Israeli society who are the dominant inhabitants of the #2 and # 3 type of settlements.
They include Israelis who voted overwhelmingly for Likud and who are determined to create "facts on the ground" in Judea and Samaria to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. And if they have to engage in a scorched earth policy to have their way (including, according to a very few of them, justly maiming and murdering other Israelis who disagree with them), so be it. It was this type of fanatical settler who deemed fit to assassinate former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
These settlers believe it is God's will to create a "Greater Israel" throughout Judea and Samaria -- a religious oxymoron if there ever was one since by definition their vision of a "Greater Israel" could ONLY be realized by the repatriation of Palestinians out of the West Bank. On the Israeli political spectrum they are the real obstacles to peace.
To put it bluntly, Netanyahu's support for #2 type settlements expansion and their so-called "natural growth" (let alone taking merely public relations steps to tear down some of the #3 type outposts) on West Bank lands east of the Green Line fundamentally constitutes a violation of Israel's pledges under Road Map and are a road block to any peace agreement.
Netanyahu simply should not be humored so he can have it both ways: he cannot justify settlement expansion, oppose a Palestinian state and expect the United States to continue business as usual given this president's determination to reset relations with the Muslim world and help Israel break out of the strategic threats it faces in the region. I am all in favor of avoiding collisions between the U.S. and Israel, but Netanyahu and his immediate predecessor, not Obama, picked this fight.
I can confidently report that most Israelis share President Obama's view regarding the settlements in question despite the rightward drift of Israel's electorate.
And while America's Jewish supporters are understandably concerned with what appears to be a growing rift between Netanyahu and Obama, they should take a deep breath, exhale, give Obama the benefit of the doubt and not overreact to some necessary tough love from steadfast allies Madame Secretary or Mr. President.
In the end, a bullet-proof settlement construction freeze may not be palatable to some in Netanyahu's coalition. But an irreversible freeze and a change in Israeli policy toward these settlements will go a very long way in forging a crucial period of trust and confidence in U.S. -- Israeli relations at a time when Israel needs a strong American president who can deliver the goods.
Only the very narrowest of parochial political machinations seem to be driving Netanyahu's calculations, and those calculations lack merit since they collide with Israel's long term security and its deep and abiding strategic friendship with the U.S.
It's not even a close call.
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