The Obama administration is urging Israel to accept a settlement freeze as a means of showing good faith toward its Palestinian neighbors. Guest columnist Richard Silverstein says the freeze is necessary to begin "the truly heavy lifting that will be necessary to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Over the past few months, the Obama administration has urged Israel to accept a settlement freeze as a means of showing good faith toward its Palestinian neighbors in negotiating peace. The freeze is important because 300,000 Israeli settlers live beyond the Green Line and they have poisoned the political atmosphere and prevented the parties from negotiating in earnest.
The Times recently published an op-ed by Nevet Basker that attacks U.S. policy and claims settlements pose no threat to peace [“Obama administration’s approach to Israel and its neighbors is ill-conceived,” Opinion, Sept. 4]. She urges the administration to abandon its focus on settlements and turn instead to the ways in which the Palestinians have not honored their own commitments to the peace process.
Contrary to what the pro-Israel lobby maintains, the occupation is the core issue dividing the parties. Not only are Israeli settlements an obstacle to peace, Israel dedicates huge amounts of military force and government to propping up this 42-year-long colonial enterprise that violates international law. U.S. administrations have for decades demanded an end to Israeli settlements only to fold under unrelenting Israeli opposition. So President Obama is only attempting to implement a policy advocated, but not enforced, by previous presidents.
Pro-Israel advocates would have you believe American Jews do not support a freeze. Not so. The Jewish Forward reports that at a recent White House meeting of key national Jewish leaders, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, leader of the Reform movement, said that a freeze was in the interest of Israel, the U.S. and the American Jewish community. Of the other 15 Jewish leaders attending the meeting, Yoffie said, “Not one person in the room said to the president, ‘You’re wrong on that.’ “
Opponents of a settlement freeze like to point out that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon supposedly negotiated an agreement with President Bush that sanctioned the settlement enterprise and allowed for expansion of the major settlement blocs. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has specifically denied the existence of such an agreement. If one ever existed, it was certainly never codified by any party in writing. Bush himself has not spoken out on the issue. One would expect that if he did make such an agreement he would be willing to say so publicly.
In truth, a settlement freeze is but a preamble to the truly heavy lifting that will be necessary to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Agreement to a freeze would encourage Arab governments to follow suit with reciprocal good-faith measures allowing negotiators to proceed to final status talks between the parties.
A full resolution of the conflict will require painful compromises from both sides. Israel will have to return to pre-1967 borders (with land swaps in order to absorb major settlement blocs into Israel). This means abandoning many of the West Bank settlements. Jerusalem will become a shared capital of two states. Jurisdiction over the Temple Mount and Western Wall, among the holiest sites for both religions, would have to be shared. Palestinians will have to recognize Israel and end armed hostilities. They may also have to accept their new nation having certain limitations imposed upon its sovereignty (i.e. the prohibition against fielding an army).
The sad fact is that the current Israeli government, knowing all this, refuses even to begin the process by agreeing to freeze settlements. Instead, it demands the right to complete 2,500 housing units currently being built and announces the building of 400 new units. This provocation is meant to mollify Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners. But it will never play in Arab capitals and brings the peace process to a standstill.
We must stand fast with Obama and support a freeze because it is good for Israel’s long-term interests and the prospect of peace.
Richard Silverstein of Seattle writes the Tikun Olam blog dedicated to Israeli-Arab peace. He also writes regularly for The Guardian’s Comment is Free blog.