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President Obama Pushes Israel to Halt Settlements While Israeli Leaders Push Back


For years progress toward a two-state solution in the Middle East has been hung up on so-called “final status issues.” Israelis and Palestinians have not been able to agree on borders, Jerusalem, settlements, or refugee return. But U.S. President Barack Obama has recently reframed the struggle for an eventual peace agreement around the issue of halting Israeli settlements on land occupied after the June War of 1967.

An Arab Perspective

Arab journalist Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent for the Middle East Broadcasting Center, says a close examination of the history of Israel reveals that it was not right-wing Israeli leaders or the Likud Party that established settlement policy in the occupied territories.

Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA’s International Press Club, Bilbassy says it was the policy of left-wing governments as well because Israelis believed that, if they continued to annex parts of a future Palestinian state, it would prevent the formation of a viable state.

But, as Palestinians and other Arabs view the current situation, Bilbassy argues, the distinction between so-called “legal” – and “illegal” – settlements is an artificial one. According to Bilbassy, the position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “defies logic because every settlement activity is illegal under international law, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and in some cases even under Israeli law.”

Nadia Bilbassy says there are about 450,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That includes the major settlements of Maale Adumim, Ariel, Gush Etzion, and Gilo. Bilbassy asks, “What are you going to do about these settlers?” She suggests that the emergence of a Palestinian state may need to take a part of these four major settlements into consideration. “There is no illusion that Israel under any kind of peace deal will evict half-a-million people and move them somewhere else entirely,” she adds.

In negotiations, Bilbassy says, neither side – the Palestinians nor the Israelis – can realistically be expected to start with their final position. She says, “There is no way that five million Palestinian refugees can return.” Nonetheless, she poses the question faced by the negotiators, “If you give up their rights, then how will you end up at the end?” Bilbassy notes that even the Arab Peace Plan clearly states that, for the Arab world to have peace and normalized relations with Israel, Israel will have to withdraw to the 1967 borders, which implies evicting all settlers in the West Bank. She suggests it is not going to happen because neither the Arabs nor the Israelis, and neither the Americans nor the Europeans really expect Israel to remove all the settlers.

Nadia Bilbassy says most Arabs believe that, if the Obama administration is unable to move the peace process forward, nobody can. She says, “This is the last realistic chance for peace.” Bilbassy notes that President Obama took a strong stand on halting settlements, but he did not say that all settlers have to be evicted. “The bottom line is that we’re talking about a viable Palestinian state.”

An Israeli Perspective

But Israeli journalist Nathan Guttman of the Jewish Daily Forward, says although the Netanyahu government has taken a strong position on the expansion of settlements in the West Bank – namely, that provision needs to made for the “natural growth” of Israeli-government approved settlements - the Israeli media reflect more closely what most Israelis think.

According to Guttman, there are two separate issues. One of them is the settlements, and the other is American pressure on Israel to decrease settlement activity. He says, “There is a consensus, which is reflected in the Israeli press, that there needs to be a stop to settlement activity and that eventually Israel is going toward a two-state solution.” That means outposts and settlements way deep the Palestinian territories will not be able to remain.

Nathan Guttman says, “There is also a consensus there needs to be a solution that includes large Jewish settlement blocs as part of the state of Israel with some kind of land swap.” However, when it comes to the question of pressuring Israel, that’s where there is a split in the Israeli public. “People who support the Netanyahu government – even those who agree that there should be a two-state solution – would not like to see it as the result of external pressure, Guttman explains.

A British Perspective

British journalist Ian Williams, who reports from the United Nations in New York, says Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has told a succession of visiting Israeli ministers over the past few weeks that all settlements are illegal under international law. That was also the view the U.S. State Department held when the settlement program began, Williams says.

“The signatories to the Geneva Convention agreed that the occupied territories were occupied in violation of the Geneva Convention,” Ian Williams adds. However, the White House has changed its view on settlements over the years, he notes. “The settlements moved from being illegal to being an obstacle to peace to being unhelpful,” Williams observes.

According to Ian Williams, President Netanyahu is not citing the United Nations, but previous Israeli understandings with Washington. “As part of the Oslo accords, there was an agreement there should be no attempt to alter facts on the ground,” Williams says. Nonetheless, since Oslo, the number of settlers has doubled, he notes.

Furthermore, the Israelis agreed under the terms of the so-called “road map” there would be no expansion of existing settlements. “But what happened during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations was that this Israeli government commitment was winked at,” Williams says, “and the United States agreed not to make any fuss about it.”

According to Ian Williams, settlements represent a key issue for the Obama administration, and in fact the President’s credibility hangs on it. “Behind him he has international law, but most effective in dealing with domestic pressure inside the United States, he also has the Israeli government’s own commitment that they will not expand settlements as part of the road map,” Williams notes.

British journalist Ian Williams says that, because Israel and the Middle East represent such a “hot-button issue,” the Obama administration needs to move very carefully. “By holding Israel to its own commitments,” he adds, “it weakens the position of domestic opponents in Congress.”

Current Dilemma

However, this week, reports said the Israeli government had authorized the construction of 300 homes at a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, defying U.S. calls for a halt to settlement growth. Officials said 60 houses in the Talmon settlement have already been built, but they denied that approval was given for the other 240 houses.

A meeting between Prime Minister Netanayu and U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, originally scheduled to take in Paris on Thursday was postponed, but Mr. Mitchell will meet with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak next week in Washington. Israeli officials have denied media reports that the original meeting was called off because of a disagreement over Israeli settlement activity.

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