WIll Democrats Finally End their Support for West Bank Settlements?

07/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Recent calls by President Barack Obama for the government of Israel to freeze the expansion of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank marks a sharp reversal from Democratic Party policy toward the Israeli colonization of Palestinian land.

Indeed, for the past 20 years, Democrats in Washington have largely supported such Israeli expansionism in which Israeli occupation forces confiscate Palestinian land in territories seized in the June 1967 war to build Jewish-only communities that are increasingly interconnected through special highways from which Palestinians are largely banned.

Whether the Obama administration will choose to use its enormous leverage to actually force the right-wing Israeli government to stop the expansion of such illegal settlements, however, remains to be seen. Much may depend on the reaction of the Democratic-controlled Congress.

As outlined in my recent article, it was the Clinton administration and Democrats in Congress who were largely responsible for blocking efforts to freeze Israeli settlements in the early 1990s, when they were only half as large as they are now, and even subsidizing their expansion, policies that contributed directly to the collapse of the peace process in 2000 and the rise of Hamas.

Similarly, during the Bush administration, Democrats in Congress continued their support for Israeli settlements policy. Obama's challenge, then, is not only to fight off Republican opposition to his calls for a settlements freeze, which they refer to as "misguided," but fellow Democrats as well.
Democratic Opposition to Obama

Though there are some indications that some leading Democrats who have supported Israeli settlements policy in the past may be moderating their views, there are others who appear willing to fight any effort by Obama to force Israel to change its expansionist policies.

For example, Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., stated, "My concern is that we are applying pressure to the wrong party in this dispute," arguing against pressuring "the only democracy in the Middle East to stop the natural growth of their settlements." She warned Obama, "When Congress gets back into session, the administration is going to hear from many more members than just me."

Despite the provocative nature of these settlements and the precarious security situation they have created for Israeli forces who have to protect this patchwork of illegal outposts amidst a hostile population, Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., whom the Democrats have chosen to chair the House Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on the Middle East, insists, "I don't think anybody wants to dictate to an ally what they have to do in their own national-security interests."

Four U.N. Security Council resolutions and a ruling by the International Court of Justice have formally recognized the illegality of Israel's West Bank settlements, citing the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids any country from settling its civilians in territories seized by military force.

Yet Democrats who support Israel's creeping annexation of the territory are insisting that Obama's calls for a settlement freeze is interfering in Israel's internal affairs. Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., described Obama's actions this way: "There's a line between articulating U.S. policy and seeming to be pressuring a democracy on what are their domestic policies, and the president is tiptoeing right up to that line."

Labeling the illegal colonization of someone else's country as "a domestic policy" is nothing short of endorsement of the right of conquest. Virtually the entire international community recognizes the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as being under belligerent occupation and that what constitutes Israel is the 78 percent of historic Palestine controlled by Israel prior to June 1967.

Israel has never defined where its borders are, however, which has given Israeli leaders and their American supporters an enormous amount of leeway as to what they consider to be "Israel."
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Secretary of State Colin Powell during a visit to Washington to discuss the future of the Palestinians and Israeli settlements policy, "We learn a lot from you Americans. We saw how you moved West using this method."

Berkley, Ackerman and Weiner are hardly the only Democrats pressuring Obama to back off. Last month, the majority of Democratic senators signed on to a letter co-sponsored Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Arlen Specter, D-Pa., supporting the Israeli right's position that rather than recognize both sides of international legal obligations to bridge the differences, the U.S. should "work in close concert with Israel."

The letter cites a number of areas where the senators insist the United States should pressure the Palestinians and other Arab parties to live up to their obligations in the peace process while saying nothing about a freeze on settlements or any other Israeli obligations.

Similarly, in what has been widely interpreted as a call for Obama to refrain from any public expression of concern over the settlements, a majority of House Democrats signed a letter co-sponsored by House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., circulated last month declaring that any such disagreements between the United States and Israel should be worked out "privately."
In an apparent effort to pressure the Obama administration to not enforce Israel's international legal obligations regarding settlements, the letter also insists that such "details" should be negotiated only among the parties themselves, which -- given the gross asymmetry in power between the Palestinians under occupation and their Israeli occupiers -- appears to be a call for Obama to allow Israel to do what it will.

In addition, House Democrats insist that "the parties themselves must negotiate the details of any agreement" and that the United States must "work closely with our democratic ally, who will be taking the greatest risks in any peace agreement," which is essentially an insistence not to pressure Israel on the settlements issue.

Signs of a Shift?

However, a number of members of Congress who have defended Israeli policies in that past, including Jewish Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Bob Filner, D-Calif., refused to sign the House letter.

In addition, some Democrats, despite having signed the letter, informed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to Washington last month that they do not support his position on settlements, including such traditionally anti-Palestinian stalwarts as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., and senior Democrats Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan and Rep. Henry Waxman of California.

Similarly, when Netanyahu made his rounds on Capitol Hill after meeting with Obama, only House Minority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., openly defended him on the settlements issue.

House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who have signed previous letters supporting the Israeli right, refused to sign onto the recent letters supporting the right-wing Netanyahu government's position in the negotiations.

Meanwhile, a congressional letter sponsored by Reps. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., Charles Boustany, R-La., and Russ Carnahan, D-Mo., which declares that the Israeli settlements were among the things that "threaten the window of opportunity for the two-state solution" and that "American leadership is essential to achieving meaningful progress," has received scores of signatures from their colleagues.
Although a majority of congressional Democrats still apparently support the expansion of Israeli settlements, there have been an unprecedented number of defections from the once-solid support for the Israeli right.

There could be a number of reasons for this apparent shift: One could simply be the desire to support a Democratic president early in his term on a tough foreign policy issue.

Another could be that they could belatedly be recognizing, as does Obama, that anti-American extremism in the greater Middle East will continue to be stoked as long as there is no Israeli-Palestinian peace, that peace will not be possible without a viable Palestinian state and that such a state cannot exist as long as Israel continues to expand its settlements.

A third reason could be that polls now indicate that a solid majority of Americans support the United States "getting tough" with Israel over the settlements, including over 70 percent of Democratic voters.
Democrats and Settlements

If recent history is any indication, however, Obama may find that one of the biggest challenges in stopping Netanyahu's settlements drive will be those in his own party on Capitol Hill.
In 2001, the Mitchell Commission -- appointed by the outgoing President Bill Clinton -- noted a number of minimal actions by both Israelis and Palestinians to end the violence and restart the peace process. Key among them was a call for a "freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements," emphasizing that, "A cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the government of Israel freezes all settlement activity."

Yet when congressional Democrats have spoken about the report's recommendations, they have consistently failed to mention the settlement freeze and talked only in terms of unilateral Palestinian initiatives.

When the Bush administration -- along with Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- put together a three-part "Road Map" for Israeli-Palestinian peace in 2003, the first phase included a series of obligations by both sides, such as an end to Palestinian violence, Palestinian political reform (including free elections), Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian Authority areas reconquered since 2000, and a freeze on the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, "including natural growth of settlements."

In response, the majority of House Democrats wrote President George W. Bush insisting that rather than a pushing for a de-escalation through reciprocal and simultaneous measures, U.S. policy should insist that ending Palestinian violence and the establishment of a new Palestinian leadership should be placed "above all" Israeli responsibilities, such as freezing the expansion of settlements.

When Bush declared in March 2003 that "settlement activity in the occupied territories must end," he was denounced by Pelosi, who said she was "seriously concerned about the timing, tone and effect of the president's statement."

Pelosi and other Democratic leaders' criticism of Bush's call for a settlement freeze appeared to be based on their insistence that the Palestinians alone were responsible for implementing the first stage of the Road Map, essentially arguing that unless and until every act of violence against Israelis ends and the militias of Hamas other extremist groups are dismantled, Israel has no obligation to freeze the settlements.

Throughout the peace process, congressional Democrats have ignored the fact that just as the Palestinians have an obligation to end terrorism regardless of whether Israel stops expanding its settlements, Israel is obliged to end the expansion of settlements regardless of whether the Palestinians end all terrorism.

Nor have they seemed to recognize that it is the expansion of settlements that has markedly
contributed to so many Palestinians giving up on a diplomatic route to a two-state solution and embracing Hamas and other radical groups instead.

When prominent Democrats have dared raised concerns about Israel's settlements policy, they have been roundly denounced by the party's congressional leadership. This is particularly true when the criticism has centered on the way it has created an apartheidlike situation on the West Bank through the development of Jewish-only towns and Jewish-only highways accessible only to Palestinians with special passes to do certain menial labor.

Even former President Jimmy Carter is not exempt. Pelosi and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean denounced the Nobel Peace Prize winner's opposition to these Israeli policies, insisting that "he does not speak for the Democratic Party." Rather than address the legitimate concerns, leading Democrats -- including a spokesperson for the Obama campaign -- have falsely claimed that Carter's position was that Israel was an apartheid state.

Carter makes clear in his book, Palestine: Peace of Apartheid, that he is talking about the situation in the West Bank, not Israel itself. Carter correctly notes that despite some discrimination against Israel's Arab minority, Israel is a democracy and does not practice apartheid within its internationally recognized borders and that he was only referring to the situation created by Israel's illegal West Bank settlements.

Yet, in order to distract Americans from taking seriously Carter's concerns about Israel's settlements policy, the Democratic Party leadership has chosen to not only distort his position but to even shun him, such as when they took the unprecedented step last year of denying a former president a podium at his party's national convention.

The Separation Barrier

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, as a senator of New York, visited a number of these Israeli settlements, refusing to acknowledge their illegality or even the fact that they were in territory recognized by the international community as being under belligerent occupation. During a photo opportunity at settlement of Gilo in 2007, she claimed, while gazing over the massive wall that separates Palestinians from settlers and which bisects what used to be vineyards that had helped sustain nearby Palestinian communities, "This is not against the Palestinian people. This is against the terrorists."

In July 2004, the International Court of Justice -- with only the U.S. judge dissenting (largely on a technicality) -- determined that Israel's construction of the separation barrier outside Israeli internationally recognized borders (those prior to the June 1967 war) was illegal.

The idea of a physical barrier between Israel and the new Palestinian state that would emerge from the occupied territories was originally promoted by Israeli moderates as a means of securing Israel from attack after the withdrawal of Israel's occupation forces.

What the Israeli government has done, however, is to build most of the barrier, not along Israel's recognized border as originally proposed, but in a lengthy, serpentine pattern through the occupied West Bank in order to incorporate illegal settlement blocs -- along with large areas of Palestinian farmland -- into Israel.

In its ruling, the International Court of Justice acknowledged the tragic realities that "Israel has to face numerous indiscriminate and deadly acts of violence against its civilian population" and that the Jewish state "has the right, indeed the duty, to respond in order to protect the lives of its citizens." The court recognized, however, that such security measures "are bound nonetheless to remain in conformity with applicable international law."

In other words, according to the World Court, Israel -- like any country -- has the right to build a wall, a fence, or anything else along its borders to protect itself. The ICJ even recognized a number of U.N. resolutions specifically reiterating Israel's right to defend its borders. The basis of the court's ruling against the Israeli policy is that the jurists were "not convinced that the specific course Israel has chosen for the wall was necessary to attain its security objectives ..."

Since the barrier was not following Israel's borders, the court simply confirmed the widespread assumption in Israel and elsewhere that the wall was being built to incorporate illegal settlements into Israel, and therefore the wall itself was illegal.

In other words, if one was simply concerned about Israel protecting itself from terrorist infiltration, there was no reason to object to the World Court's ruling, since the only objection to the separation barrier involved the sections that went beyond Israel's recognized borders. The only reason to oppose the ruling was if one supported the Israeli policy of building settlements in occupied territory and then erecting a wall so as to incorporate them into an illegally expanded Israel.

Democratic leaders, in an unprecedented action, denounced the World Court for its advisory opinion. Kerry defended Israel's construction of the wall deep into the West Bank as "a legitimate response to terror that only exists in response to the wave of terror attacks against Israel."

In effect recognizing these illegal colonies as being legitimately part of Israel, he insisted that any legal challenges to the route of the wall should go through the Israeli judiciary, "and we should respect that process" rather than referring the issue to international forums

Despite the ICJ's clear distinction between a government's legal right to build a protective barrier along its border for self-defense and the construction of a barrier within the occupied territory of another nation in a manner that expands the boundaries of the occupying power, the bipartisan House resolution called the court's decision an "attempt to infringe upon Israel's right to self-defense."

Typical of remarks by leading House Democrats, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, falsely claimed that the ruling totally ignored Israel's right to defend its citizens. Similarly, Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada asserted that the advisory opinion was done "solely for the narrow purpose of condemning the state of Israel for its effort to protect its innocent citizens from suicide bombers."

Then-Sen. Rodham Clinton declared, despite a whole series of resolutions against terrorism and a series of initiatives launched by the U.N. to combat it, "It makes no sense for the United Nations to vehemently oppose a fence which is a nonviolent response to terrorism rather than opposing terrorism itself."

What motivated Clinton and these other congressional Democrats, then, was to make the case that opposing settlements was the same as supporting terrorism. They were not alone. More than 80 percent of House Democrats supported a resolution condemning the World Court's ruling. (See my article "Attacks Against World Court by Bush and Congress Reveal Growing Bipartisan Hostility to International Law.")

Making the Settlements Permanent

After two decades of aiding and abetting settlement expansion in the face of warnings that it could make the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel impossible, Democrats are now insisting that these demographic changes have made a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank "unrealistic."

Indeed, this very language was incorporated into the 2004 Democratic platform. That same year, all but eight Democrats in the House supported a resolution sponsored by right-wing Republican leader Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, which stated in part that Israel should not be expected to withdraw from the settlements "in light of new realities on the ground."

In that clause, the resolution refers to the illegal settlements euphemistically as "Israeli population centers." More significantly, the resolution refers to these settlements as being "in Israel," in effect recognizing their annexation.

With this kind of history, no wonder Netanyahu thinks he can get away with defying Obama's admonition to stop expanding settlements and why he is so shocked that Obama has gone as far as he has.

Obama himself appears to have already accepted Israeli annexation of settlements containing the majority of Israeli settlers that are in and around East Jerusalem, the only ones that have already been formally annexed into Israel. These settlements are just as illegal as those elsewhere on the West Bank, according the Fourth Geneva Convention.

In addition, the four U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for Israel to withdraw from its settlements specifically contain the clause "including East Jerusalem," and there are an additional series of U.N. Security Council resolutions formally declaring Israel's annexation of the occupied eastern half of the city and its environ "null and void."

As problematic as Obama's acquiescence to Israel's illegal annexation may be, however, there are at least some scenarios for a final peace settlement in which Israel could hold onto most of the settlements in and around occupied East Jerusalem in return for an equivalent area currently recognized as being within Israel south of the Gaza Strip.

By contrast, the settlements traditionally defended by congressional Democrats include not just these but settlement blocs that go far beyond even Israel's greatly extended interpretation of what constitutes greater Jerusalem, which could realistically be exchanged in a land swap, dividing the West Bank into a series of noncontiguous cantons surrounded by Israel.

Indeed, it appears that Democratic Party strategy all along has been identical to that of the Republicans: to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and to support the Israeli right in its expansionist agenda.

In fact, Pelosi, Kerry, Berman, Hoyer and other Democratic leaders were on record explicitly opposing Palestinian statehood well into the 1990s, dropping their objections only after the Israeli government -- then under the moderate Labor Party leadership -- expressed its support for such a two-state solution.

The question, then, is whether the Democrats will back their president in his call for a freeze on settlements or continue to ally with congressional Republicans in opposing any U.S. efforts to enforce Israel's international obligations and make the necessary steps for peace by withdrawing from these illegal settlements.

One of Congress' strongest supporters of Israeli settlements is now secretary of state and appears to have changed her tune. As a senator, Clinton spoke at a pro-settlements rally in front of the United Nations and was the chief pro-settlements resolution promoter against the World Court in 2004.

On May 27, 2009, though, she declared: "With respect to settlements, the president was very clear when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here. He wants to see a stop to settlements -- not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. We think it is in the best interests of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others. And we intend to press that point."

Whether the Obama administration will be willing to "press the point" in more than words and actually withhold aid and engage in other concrete measures to enforce this sentiment may depend on the willingness of the American public to back him up and make clear that reversal in the Democrats' longstanding support for Israel's settlements policy is long overdue.

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