Its Either Me or the Settlements: A Marriage on the Rocks?

Recurring Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu met with President Obama in Washington this week and, without flinching, attributed the stalled peace process to the U.S. Administration's concern with illegal settlements and not to Israel's violation of the peace process's terms, which unequivocally mandate the cessation of settlement expansion. In absurd fashion, Netanyahu urged its primary benefactor, on whom it has relied for financial, military, and diplomatic support since 1968, to stop troubling itself with settlements, which he referred to as "homes for Jews," and to move on to more important things like the peace process.

To the novice politico, it would seem that Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the peace process that seeks to exchange occupied land for security can somehow be extricated from one another. To the more seasoned politico, and to anyone paying attention really, it is obvious that Israel does not want to play by anyone's rules -- it neither wants to be held to account to international law, which it deems biased, nor does it want to oblige U.S. foreign policy concerns when those concerns do not comport with its own agenda. Instead, Israel points distracting fingers to Iran while using U.S. tax dollars to expand the very settlements that the Administration condemns all the while bemoaning the Obama Administration's audacity to be public about their disagreement.

In response to Vice President Biden's initial criticism of Israel's plans to build 1,600 new settlement units in East Jerusalem, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee cautioned that "The administration should make a conscious effort to move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel ... We strongly urge the administration to work closely and privately with our partner Israel, in a manner befitting strategic allies, to address any issues between the two governments."

The U.S.'s response to AIPAC's advisory has been meek at best. It cautiously refers to the settlements as an impediment to the U.S.'s role as a mediator but stays mum on the fact that the settlements are illegal, that they eclipse any chance of achieving Palestinian statehood, that they undermine the U.S.'s credibility in the Arab and Muslim world, or that armed Jewish settlers in the midst of displaced Palestinians threaten not just stability in Palestine and Israel but throughout the entire region. Moreover, and perhaps more daunting, is the fact that while the U.S. has plenty of economic and political tools it can use to reinforce its foreign policy objectives, it is struggling just to speak publicly about its frustration with Israel's flagrant dismissal of long-established terms of the peace accords.

The conspicuous absence of any discussion about the role of settlements as regards U.S. foreign policy interests as well as the Obama Administration's failure to use available tools to achieve such interests speaks volumes to the U.S.'s misguided foreign policy towards Israel.

The U.S.'s obsession with the image of its relationship rather than the security of its national interests is better suited for a marital dispute rather than the relationship of the world's super power with its burdensome ally in the Middle East. So for the sake of this scenario, let us treat this like a marriage and imagine that the couple is seeking therapy to discuss their irreconcilable differences.

For starters, the marriage counselor would emphasize honesty and trust and would begin by disavowing the euphemistic reference to "Jewish homes" and refer to settlements as just that -- colonial settlements. The colonies are built on confiscated Palestinian lands from which Palestinian inhabitants are expelled and displaced and from where they witness the demolition of their homes without compensation. The displaced Palestinians then watch as new, U.S.-subsidized homes are built for Jews who have immigrated from as far as Eastern Europe, the U.S., and South America and once settled into their illegal colonies are afforded five to seven times as much water as their displaced and homeless Palestinian counterparts. Fearful that they will be attacked by these Palestinian families who have no judicial redress to contest the demolition of their homes or the confiscation of their lands, the Jewish settlers confiscate more land, demolish more homes, and displace even more Palestinian families to build Jewish-only roads that literally bypass Palestinian neighborhoods and families. As an additional measure, the Israeli Army erects checkpoints between Palestinian cities filled with freshly displaced Palestinians to ensure the twenty-four/seven monitoring of Palestinian movement. Worse still, on Jewish holidays, to ensure "zero security risk" to the Jewish settlers from the Palestinian families they've rendered homeless, displaced into congested cities, and subjected to severe movement restrictions, the Israeli Army declares a mandatory curfew forbidding all Palestinians from leaving their homes for up to 36 hours.

The counselor finishes, turns to Israel and asks: "Is it fair to your partner to lament your lack of security and simultaneously engender a security tinderbox?"

Perhaps in this closed room, Israel would bite its lower lip, stare into its hands and be honest about its settlement project. According to the 1980 Drobles Plan, named after its architect Mattiyahu Drobles of the World Zionist Organization, the settlement and occupation of the West Bank are intended to prevent the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. According to Drobles, "the minority population will find it difficult to form a territorial and political continuity" if the population and the territory are cut off by Jewish settlements. In February 2002, 367,000 settlers lived on 141 settlements in the West Bank. Today, OCHA reports that there are 593 settlements and upwards of 400,000 settlers. This in contravention of United Nations Security Council Resolutions, 242, 338; of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention; of Article 8 of the Rome Statute; of the Oslo Accords and the Road Map; and of stated U.S. foreign policy.

Flushed with the indignation of Israel's disclosure, the U.S. straightens its shoulders and without stuttering declares that its policy towards Jewish settlements is neither new nor innovative. In fact, it was a Republican Administration led by former President George Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, that conditioned U.S. loan guarantees to Israel on a settlement freeze. In 1992, Congress entered H.R. 5638, Title VI P.L. 102-391 into law authorizing $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel and stipulating that the funds may not be used in the Occupied Territories. Between FY 1993 and FY 1997, the U.S. withheld $774 million in loan guarantees to Israel, the equivalent amount spent on Jewish settlements. Settlements do not contravene the Obama Administration's policy -- rather they contravene U.S. foreign policy in general.

Unmoved by the U.S.'s feelings (read as "interests") and notwithstanding its own confessions (read as "unclassified Israeli history better known by Israelis than by its staunch U.S.-based advocates"), Israel looks to the US and asks it to keep these issues between them for the sake of their relationship and Israel's security (read as "a deceptive red herring.") While the U.S. should take this very opportunity to present its spouse with a clear ultimatum, "its either me or the settlements," the world's superpower is actually considering turning a blind eye to its cheating partner.

The failure to stand its ground yet again, as the Obama Administration made similar demands in early 2009 only to rescind them later, weakens the U.S.'s credibility the world over, especially in the Middle East. Worse perhaps, the Obama Administration may be inadvertently legitimizing Netanyahu's absurd logic that the problem is not settlement expansion but instead the U.S.'s bravado to go public.

While going public is not the problem, in fairness to Israel's most hawkish supporters, it is establishing a new precedent as it breaks with the unwritten and silent principle that Israel can do no wrong. In effect, the Obama Administration is decoupling the battle against anti-Semitism from the Zionist project in historic Palestine. The former has no limits and has the support of the world over. The latter is rife with critique and should be limited, questioned, and treated properly. The fear among Netanyahu and his ilk is that such a bifurcation would irreversibly open the floodgates of legitimate criticism of Israel rendering it no different than any other State in the community of nations. For anti-racists the world over this signals progress as criticism of Israel's State practices can no longer be collapsed with Jewish people. For anyone paying any attention, the fact that Israel is not already subjected to this type of treatment is problematic and dangerous.

Meanwhile, the fact that the U.S. is even considering shirking away from its second opportunity to hold Israel to account for settlement expansion is embarrassingly disappointing. In marital terms, failure to speak boldly on the detrimental impact of settlements is unhealthy for their relationship especially in the aftermath of Israel's very public snub of Vice President Biden. Alternatively, if the Administration firmly rejects Israel's deceptive euphemisms and pursues its own interests, then we may be witnessing one irreconcilable difference that can lead to honest discussions about many others. Something tells me that the tide against Israeli impunity among civil society in the U.S. as well as within international courtrooms and European parliaments may provide the U.S. with the support it needs to finally stop the cycle of abuse and tell Israel to shape up or get out.