Israeli Housing Settlements Trump Peace Settlements

March 12, 2010

by Pat Ryan

If you think the two-state solution is the annual meeting between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Florida Gators on the gridiron or that a settlement is something a Tiger Woods mistress is seeking then you should read on. This week your Vice President was in Israel to talk about America’s relationship with it, about regional challenges like Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and about the Middle East Peace process.

The pursuit of peace between Israelis and Palestinians and other Arab neighbors, has been a decades-long, tortuous process. It boils down to security for Israel in exchange for return of land. There are other not insignificant issues that have complicated peace talks, for example the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes inside Israel, but the main question is the concept of land for peace.

Resolving the land for peace issue has become almost unsolvable since the 1967 war when Israel began building settlements in the Occupied Territories that it captured during the conflict. Those lands, outside the international borders of Israel, have become the new homes for settlers living in about 170 formally established communities of Israeli citizens across the West Bank, homeland of the Palestinians, and the basis for a two-state solution. There are about 300,000 Israelis living in a patchwork of Israeli communities across the Palestinian West Bank, as well as some 200,000 Israelis settled in the captured eastern section of Jerusalem.

The illegality of these settlements in the eyes of international law, reaffirmed by American policy pronouncements, has been irrefutable. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying power from establishing jurisdiction over occupied territories or transferring part of its population there. The United Nations Security Council in 1967 sought to restore peace to the region through formal resolutions calling for withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from “territories occupied in the recent conflict.” American leaders have reinforced U.S. policy against Israel’s settlements in the Occupied Territories in numerous public statements. The Johnson Administration: “There can be little doubt among [Government of Israel] leaders as to our continuing opposition to any Israeli settlement.” The Ford Administration: “Substantial resettlement of the Israeli civilian population in occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, is illegal..” President Carter: “Our position on the settlements is very clear. We do not think they are legal.” American opposition to settlement building, identified as an obstacle to peace, was consistent in every Administration since. And it is a cornerstone of the U.S. position, agreed to by all of the parties, including Israel in 2007 at Annapolis, supporting a two-state solution — a “Palestinian state that will live side by side with Israel in peace and security” – and serving as the “roadmap” to peace.

Last year the Obama Administration jump-started the peace process, which had slipped to the American foreign policy back-burner in the Bush Administration. One of the first steps was to call for an immediate freeze in settlement activity in the Occupied Territories. Israel’s response was to continue building but apply a political cosmetic. In the West Bank there will be no new construction, said the Israeli government, but we will continue “natural growth” of existing settlements. Meanwhile there was to be no freeze on building for Israeli settlers in Palestinian East Jerusalem. Last year a study by the European Union concluded, “Israeli ‘facts on the ground’ – including new settlements, construction of the barrier, discriminatory housing policies, house demolitions, restrictive permit regime and continued closure of Palestinian institutions – increase Jewish Israeli presence in East Jerusalem, weaken the Palestinian community in the city, impede Palestinian urban development and separate East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.” So much for the pursuit of peace.

In laying the groundwork to the new Administration’s goal of Israeli-Arab peace last year Vice President Biden told Israel’s influential American political advocate, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “Israel has to work toward a two-state solution. You’re not going to like my saying this, but not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow the Palestinians freedom of movement.”

Against this backdrop it therefore was a stunning display of arrogance when – in the midst of Biden’s travels in Israel – it was announced that another 1,600 new homes for Israelis were to be built in Palestinian East Jerusalem. It was such a blatant snub that Biden, after consultations with Washington, made an extraordinary public statement. He condemned the Israeli action, a position rarely undertaken by Washington at all, much less by such a United States Vice President speaking from inside Israel.

So will this be the “final straw” over Israeli intransigence over settlements and a serious pursuit of the roadmap to a resolution with the Palestinians? Probably not. Israel’s influence is too intertwined in the American political fabric for them to worry about the consequences of embarrassing a visiting American Vice President, and showing blatant disinterest in genuine steps toward peace. Israel’s policies are able to withstand the most egregious disregard for U.S. policy and, indeed America’s own, separate strategic interests around the world. The latest episode of Israeli arrogance was just one more piece of evidence for American friends and foes who have long since concluded that Washington, rather than being an “honest broker” for peace in the region, is unable to just say “no,” and mean it, to Israel.

Pat Ryan is a retired sailor and writer. He lives in Cookeville, Tennessee.

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