09/09/2014 04:55 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

US Must Take a Stand Against Settlements

A report issued this week by the non-partisan Adva Center, which studies social inequalities in Israel, found that in the past two decades the population of Israel had grown by 60 percent and the population of its West Bank settlements by 240 percent.

In the two decades from 1991 to 2012, the report also found that annual per capita spending by the government on the settlements outpaced its spending on so-called "development towns" within the pre-1967 borders, where poverty is concentrated and economic and social needs are highest, by almost 30 percent.

The figures make it absolutely clear that the settlement project has not just been one goal among many advanced by successive Israeli governments over the past 20 years. It has been an absolute national priority. As a result, the settler population over the 1967 Green Line has grown year by year from around 10,000 in 1972 to 200,000 by 1989 to around 550,000 today.

We should view the Israeli government announcement earlier this month, that it plans to seize almost 1,000 acres in the West Bank for the purpose of building yet another large Jewish settlement, in that light. This is not an aberration, or even anything unusual -- this is just Israel doing what it does, what it has been doing for decades, totally routine.

The question now is, will anyone do anything about it. As J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami writes in the Los Angeles Times:

"For decades, the United States has greeted each new settlement building announcement from Jerusalem with a pious statement of disapproval. Generally, these statements, issued by the White House or State Department, contain adjectives like 'unhelpful,' 'counterproductive' or even 'illegitimate'.

"Successive Israeli governments have blithely ignored these protestations and continued on their merry way.

"It's time for the United States to make its words mean something. How can the world expect US leadership in dealing with hostile actors across the Middle East when even its closest friend in the region flagrantly ignores its policies?"

Ben-Ami suggests that the Obama administration declare that it is the view of the United States that settlements are not merely "unhelpful" or "illegitimate" but illegal under international law as laid out in the Fourth Geneva Convention.

He argues that only then would ordinary Israelis understand that their government's determination to push on with settlements was really causing serious damage to the US-Israel relationship.

The United States used to call the settlements illegal until 1980 but this policy was reversed by President Reagan. Since then, Washington has used vaguer, less meaningful expressions of disapproval which Israel has interpreted as a tacit green light to move right ahead.

Some may argue that the land being expropriated from five Palestinian villages lies within one of the settlement blocs that are likely to be retained by Israel in any prospective peace deal. But if the settler population within those blocs continues to increase at its current pace, they will eventually run out of space to expand and begin to spread into new areas. At that point, the two-state solution will become untenable.

The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research put out a poll last week showing that the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas, which rejects Israel's right to exist, has overtaken President Abbas and his Fatah party in popularity. A clear majority of Palestinians say they support rocket attacks against Israel and armed resistance in general.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often said that the Palestinians must choose between Hamas and peace. By continuing its settlement drive, Israel is making that choice -- the wrong choice -- very easy for them.