by Steven J. Rosen
Why Obama's hard line on Israeli settlements is counterproductive
Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as
It was an unusual way to welcome the new leader of a close friend of the
One explanation for this bizarre behavior is "Yes, we can" syndrome -- the prevailing belief in Washington that this president holds 99 percent of the cards and can get people to do things beyond what normally can be achieved. Even some in
The theory that Obama holds the high cards rests on the results that George H.W. Bush got when he confronted a different Likud prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, over settlements in September 1991. Nine months after Bush threw down the settlements gauntlet, Israeli voters ejected Shamir and replaced him with Labor's Yitzhak Rabin, opening the way to the
But this comparison is misleading. Obama's confrontation is taking place mere weeks after the formation of a new Israeli government, not months before an Israeli prime minister has to face his voters again. What's more, Israeli voters have elected the most conservative Knesset in
Moreover, the hawks have many ways to constrain and compel the prime minister. In fact, Netanyahu is in the opposite position of Shamir. Succumbing to
Netanyahu does have the political strength to reaffirm previous compromises made by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert to limit natural growth. This includes the "construction line" principle that would restrict development to infill construction within already built-up areas while preventing further geographic expansion beyond the outer line of existing structures. But the Israeli prime minister does not have the legal authority, let alone the necessary political foundation, to impose an absolute and complete freeze on all construction in all settlements. Few in
The Obama administration would be smarter to play a more nuanced game and make the distinctions it is avoiding. Only a minority of Israelis support construction of housing in outlying settlements beyond Israel's security fence, but construction in the blocs and especially in Jewish communities in Jerusalem is supported by the vast majority of the Israeli public and all the major political parties. Absolutist demands for a total freeze may win applause in the United States even from some in the U.S. Jewish community, but they go much too far to succeed in the real world.
If Obama's purpose in authorizing this confrontation was to provide an incentive to the Palestinians and the moderate states in the Arab League to take the steps they need to take for peace, his policy is likely to fail on this measure as well. Reinforcing the long-standing belief in the Arab world that the
Netanyahu knows he will need to compromise on settlements, but he can do this only if Obama compromises too. An impasse on this issue certainly does not serve
Steven J. Rosen served for 23 years as foreign policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and was a defendant in the recently dismissed AIPAC case. He is now director of the Washington Project at the Middle East Forum.
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