The Israeli settlement issue has been dominating the headlines in both Arab and Israeli media. It has also been the single biggest source of friction between the United States and Israel since Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel's prime minister in March.
The Israeli Haaretz newspaper reported that the Obama Administration has issued a stiff warning to Israel not to build in the area known as E-1, which lies between Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim. Any change in the status quo in E-1 would be "extremely damaging", even "corrosive", the message said. Four years ago, after resigning from Sharon's government, Netanyahu criticized him for giving in to American pressure on E-1. "A sovereign government must build in its eternal capital," he said. "Sharon set a precedent that will lead to the division of Jerusalem."
Controversy over illegal Israeli settlement activities is not something new. It has been in and out of the limelight ever since Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967. In the past it was an ongoing subject of dispute between the Israeli government and the U.S. Administration, most notably under presidents Jimmy Carter, and George Bush Senior. Now it is Barack Obama's turn.
Meanwhile the number of settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where Palestinians regard the area as the heart of their future state, is swiftly approaching half a million. Israel has, in the former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir's words, been successfully "creating new facts on the ground." However, the past U.S. policy toward Israel's illegal settlements construction in the Occupied Territories has been largely non-interventionist so that demand for a moratorium on settlement building in East Jerusalem by the Obama Administration is seen today as "hard line."
Meanwhile, the recent confrontations between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama over the settlements issue has been posing a PR nightmare to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and The Israel Project, the organization spearheading Israel's public relations efforts in the United States, which has recently released its 2009 Global Language Dictionary, authored by Republican pollster Frank Luntz.
When discussing Israeli settlements, the author suggests avoiding religious arguments or quoting from the Bible, warning that "even your Jewish audiences will recoil."
Claiming that the land really "belongs" to Israel is "unconvincing because, officially, Israel itself defines the territories as 'disputed.'"
In 2005, I co-produced the documentary Occupied Minds with my Israeli colleague David Michaelis. During our visits and interviews conducted in settlements across the West Bank, we faced the very arguments that the Israel Project is trying to avoid being made by fanatical settlers whose strategy is to make life so miserable for Palestinians living in nearby villages that they will eventually flee, enabling them to occupy their abandoned land. These settlers justify their right to this land as being "granted to them by God."
Victims of these unchecked settler incursions; the poor villagers live in cramped neighborhoods either menaced by settlers, surrounded by either Israel's "Separation Wall" or barbed wires or all of these. They are not beneficiaries of Israel's ludicrous "natural growth" argument although Palestinians childbirth rate is three times greater than that of Israelis. One settlement leader suggested Palestinians move to Jordan... "It is a generous offer," he added.
Will Obama succeed where other U.S. presidents have failed? Only time will tell... With more settlements and more "facts on the ground," the road to a two-state solution has hit a dead end.