Israeli Settlements, American Pressure, and Peace*

By Rosen, Steven J. | Jewish Political Studies Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Israeli Settlements, American Pressure, and Peace*


Rosen, Steven J., Jewish Political Studies Review


The settlement issue was often at the heart of U.S.-Israeli differences during the Obama administration. However, the crisis that erupted between the two countries appeared to be completely unnecessary. A settlement freeze had never been a precondition for negotiations when the 1993 Oslo Agreements were originally signed. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations continued with no settlement freeze under successive Israeli governments as well. When the Netanyahu government actually agreed to a ten-month moratorium on settlement construction, its importance was discounted by the Palestinian side, which only came to negotiate with Israel in the last month of the moratorium. Settlements turned out to be a far less important issue for determining the course of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

THE FAILURE OF THE SETTLEMENT FREEZE

Upon coming into office, the Obama peace team was seized with the idea of a settlement "freeze" as a confidence-building measure to lure the reluctant Palestinians into negotiations with Israel. President Barack Obama's peace envoy, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, had been associated with the freeze concept since the Middle East peace commission he headed in 2001 concluded that "Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements." The Bush administration signed on to the freeze idea in 2003, when it joined with the European Union, Russia, and the UN secretary-general to promulgate the "Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the IsraeliPalestinian Conflict." The Roadmap requires, in Phase I, that, "Consistent with the Mitchell Report, the Government of Israel freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)."1

But even with this language, the 2003 Roadmap, which was a multilateral declaration and not a binding international treaty, did not halt Israeli construction. Parallel to the Roadmap, the Bush administration worked out bilateral understandings with Israel that defined how Washington understood the settlement freeze that it proposed. The critical factor in the administration's thinking was that new construction not entail Israel seizing more land. Thus if construction continued within the outer perimeter of the current line of building in each settlement, then that settlement construction did not violate the Roadmap freeze. The United States and Israel reached understandings in this regard during the Bush administration.

In an effort to placate President Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu imposed on his cabinet a major concession on November 25, 2009. He announced a ten-month freeze on construction permits for new residences and the (actual) start of new residential construction in the settlements. "We have been told by many of our friends that once Israel takes the first meaningful steps toward peace, the Palestinians and Arab states would respond.... I hope that this decision will help launch meaningful negotiations to reach a historic peace agreement that would finally end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians." George Mitchell said, "We did get a 1 0 month...moratorium on new housing construction starts on the West Bank, which was less than what we asked for, less than what the Palestinians wanted, but was more than any government of Israel had ever done on that subject, and it was a significant action which I believe the Palestinians should have responded to by getting into negotiations earlier."2

But, for nine of the ten months of the freeze, Netanyahu's concession did not have the intended effect. For all but the last month, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas refused to resume negotiations even with the freeze, saying it fell short of the total freeze in Jerusalem that President Obama had promised him. "At first, President Obama stated in Cairo that Israel must stop all construction activities in the settlements. Could we demand less than that?"

Mitchell later said, "The real loss was that we didn't get a full ten months. …

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