Israel’s Settlements: Grappling with America June 19, 2009

From The Economist print edition

After the big public speeches come even tougher talks in private

AFTER many millions of people, in the Middle East and elsewhere, watched President Barack Obama and Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, setting out their versions of how to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the two leaders may now be quietly beginning to negotiate in earnest. The first issue on their joint agenda is America’s demand that Israel stop building or expanding settlements in occupied Palestinian territory and should alleviate the hardships of daily life for the millions of Palestinians under its control.

Telling one nation about two states

Mr Netanyahu, who says “normal life” in the settlements must go on, meaning that “natural growth” of the population requires building within the confines of the new towns, still seeks to find common ground. He is soon to meet Mr Obama’s envoy, George Mitchell, a former senator, in Paris. The prime minister’s people say their boss will be more flexible than he sounds. They claim to have had signals from Mr Obama’s team that an acceptable settlement freeze could still allow for some buildings to continue to go up, especially in the three or four biggest settlement blocks near the old pre-1967 border, where most of the 280,000-odd Israeli settlers (excluding those in East Jerusalem) reside.

When Mr Netanyahu addressed Israelis on June 14th and articulated, for the first time, his acceptance of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, it was a big event. His speech was his response to Mr Obama’s ten days earlier in Cairo, which sought to put America’s relations with the Muslim world on a new footing.

Mr Netanyahu hedged his acceptance of Palestinian independence with copious conditions. The new state, he said, must be demilitarised; it must “recognise Israel as the state of the Jewish people”, code for telling Palestinians to renounce a “right of return” for refugees; Israel must have “defensible borders”, code for keeping swathes of the West Bank; Jerusalem must “remain the united capital of Israel”, despite Palestinian demands to share it.

But then he said the words he had resisted saying for so long: “We will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarised Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.” In terms of Israeli politics, especially those of the right-wing-cum-religious block that put Mr Netanyahu in power and keeps him there, it was significant. The next day his approval ratings surged. His spokesmen said he had voiced Israel’s “consensus”. The opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, said it was a step in the right direction. Her party, Kadima, won the general election earlier this year but failed to form a ruling coalition with Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party because of his refusal to accept the two-state idea.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, railed against him. “It’s not a state,” said Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent politician. “It’s a ghetto.” A spokesman for the embattled Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said Mr Netanyahu had “sabotaged all initiatives, paralysed all efforts being made.” The Israeli leader’s catalogue of conditions had dashed hopes of a resumption of talks. Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, said that Mr Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians first recognise Israel as a Jewish state would “scuttle the chances of peace.”

Mr Obama’s response was more measured. He praised Mr Netanyahu for his “positive movement”. “There were a lot of conditions, and obviously working through the conditions…that’s exactly what negotiations are supposed to be about,” said the president. “But what we’re seeing is at least the possibility that we can restart serious talks.”

But Mr Obama again insisted that all settlement-building must stop. For Palestinians and the wider Arab world, and for Israeli public opinion too, this issue will be the first big test of the American president’s determination to seek to make peace in the Middle East.

Two past Democratic presidents, who both failed to curb settlement-building, cheered him on. “Based on my experience with Mr Netanyahu, he did what he thought he had to do to keep the ball rolling,” said Bill Clinton. Jimmy Carter, who brokered peace between Israel and Egypt 30 years ago, assailed Mr Netanyahu for raising new obstacles to peace. Still, he told Israeli members of parliament that the differences between their prime minister and Mr Obama were narrower than those “between me and Prime Minister Menachem Begin when he was first elected, but we gave ground on both sides and we sought common ground.”

An adjustable border, maybe

Brushing aside Mr Obama’s boycott of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that still refuses to recognise Israel, Mr Carter met some of its leaders in the Gaza Strip, which Hamas rules. But he also visited Gush Etzion, a large Israeli settlement complex on Palestinian land just south of Jerusalem, and said he saw it as a part of Israel in a future peace treaty, presumably with the Palestinians being compensated with land swaps. This was a reminder that many of the issues Mr Netanyahu framed assertively in his speech as Israeli demands and conditions have been haggled over and largely resolved in years of negotiation between the two sides.

Israeli officials also say they are reviewing the policy that bars building material and many consumer goods from being taken into Gaza. Israel’s main purpose, they say, is to weaken Hamas’s hold there. But the continuing partial siege may, the officials suggested, be counter-productive. In his Cairo speech, Mr Obama had insisted that “the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security” and demanded “concrete steps” to ease life for its Palestinian inhabitants.

Mr Mitchell will urge Mr Netanyahu to loosen the border crossings into Gaza and remove at least some of the 600 or so road blocks that impede Palestinian travel in the West Bank. Over the years, Israel has cited many reasons, mostly security-linked, to ignore or reject such demands. Messrs Obama and Mitchell still think it worth making them. If rebuffed, they may even take measures to show their displeasure.

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