Contradiction in Washington Prevents Peace in the Middle East

Israel's ten-month "freeze" on settlement building, declared under pressure from the Obama administration last November, is set to expire this month. James Cunningham, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, reportedly warned European envoys that direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians were on the verge of collapse over the settlement freeze. While attention has focused on whether the freeze will continue, few have asked if it was ever truly in force.

In August, the Israeli organization Peace Now revealed that although no new building permits were issued during this period, construction continued, including the completion or ongoing construction of over 2,700 housing units as well as new construction in violation of the freeze. According to some observers, these figures represent a decrease of only 15 percent from 2009 -- hardly a freeze or even a light frost. Peace Now warns that if the freeze does not continue, even this minimal achievement will be for naught.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that he has no intention of continuing the freeze. This was compounded by the recent statements of his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who declared that in spite of the renewed direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, peace would not be achieved "next year or the next generation."

Lieberman's comments recalled remarks by another Israeli leader who preceded him by a generation. In 1991, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir initially resisted attending the Madrid Peace Conference organized by the United States. However, he relented under American pressure. Shamir later admitted he had a different agenda in agreeing to the talks, explaining after leaving office that "I would have carried on autonomy talks for ten years and meanwhile we would have reached a half million people in Judea and Samaria [i.e., the West Bank]."

Indeed, successive Israeli administrations appear to have adopted this very strategy. Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are one of the key outstanding issues to be resolved. Although the illegality of these settlements under international law is clear and was reaffirmed by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Israel continues its construction on confiscated Palestinian land unimpeded by international criticism.

While it may have taken longer than the ten years Shamir predicted, half a million Israelis now populate the more than 130 settlements and over 100 "outposts" in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- nearly double the number of settlers since the Oslo peace accords were first signed in 1993.

What does this mean for Americans? Since Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem in June 1967 and began its settlement program in earnest a decade later, they have been criticized by successive American administrations. Yet Washington has never applied consistent and substantial pressure to stop or reverse construction. Indeed, Israel's intransigence has been rewarded directly and indirectly.

The United States provides over $3 billion of foreign and military aid to Israel annually, more than all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. This aid has increased even though Israel was recently admitted to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and notwithstanding Israel's per capita gross domestic product being higher than that of Portugal and South Korea. Aid persists even as the U.S. economy suffers from high unemployment, and record federal and state budget deficits force dramatic cuts in education and social services, most notably in California. Although Washington does not officially allow aid to go directly to the settlements, it often ignores how the funds are spent.

Meanwhile, U.S.-based charities provide direct support to the settlements. In June, the New York Times reported that American organizations donated more than $200 million to Israeli settlements and outposts over the past decade. These tax-exempt funds were used not only to build schools and synagogues but to train militias and purchase military equipment, contrary to the charities' stated humanitarian intent. Ironically, while Israeli law forbids tax-exempt donations from being directed to the settlements and considers outposts illegal, American charities have no such restrictions.

Israel's settlement policy perpetuates its occupation of the Palestinian territories and undermines American attempts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Without American largess, Israel's occupation could not continue. The United States can either broker a final peace accord or it can continue to subsidize settlements -- it cannot do both.

Continuing the settlement "freeze" is a small but important first step in demonstrating to Palestinians the sincerity of the U.S. and Israel in achieving a peace agreement. For too long, Palestinian rights have been ignored by American diplomats seeking politically expedient interim agreements and cynical Israeli politicians attempting to obscure their expansionist policies. A just peace requires that Americans and Israelis recognize that Palestinians have inalienable rights under international law. Otherwise, Washington's current contradictory approach ensures that Lieberman's claim of another generation without peace will not only prove prophetic, but optimistic.

Osamah Khalil is co-director of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.