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Stalling Over Israeli Settlements

Interviewee: David Makovsky, Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and Director, Project on the Middle East Peace Process, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
July 29, 2009

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A leading expert on U.S.-Israel relations, David Makovsky, cites "a lot of tension" in the U.S.-Israel relationship in the past few months, in part over differences on the Iranian nuclear threat but more acutely over Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He says even though President Barack Obama's popularity was very high when he was elected, his "ideas have not been resonating with the Israeli public" and political polls show his popularity sinking. Makovsky, who coauthored a new book on the Middle East with Dennis Ross, now a senior White House aide, says the Obama administration's tough line on ending expansion of settlements has created new complications in the relationship, slowing possible progress on one phase of Israeli-Palestinian talks--land issues. "It seems to me that Obama wanted to use the settlement issue as a way to facilitate negotiations," he says. "But ironically, its impact has been dragging on to the point that it's precluding the very negotiations that he wants to promote."

A top tier of American officials, from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Middle East envoy George Mitchell, have been or are going to Israel this week to discuss issues such as Iran and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Does all this unusual activity indicate that U.S.-Israel relations are under strain and the U.S. side is trying to ease tensions?

There's been a lot of tension in the relationship in the last few months.

Why is that?

It's centered really over two issues. One involves possible restrictions on Israeli settlement activity, and the second issue has been how the United States and Israel view the Iranian situation. On Iran, there hasn't been an overt strain. The Israelis have been skeptical of diplomatic engagement working, and therefore are very focused on the need for a "Plan B" if the Obama administration's effort at opening a diplomatic dialogue with Iran doesn't work. The differences between the United States and Israel on Iran are not immediate, so therefore the issue is more about assessments about the future.

What about the settlements? That seems to be an emotional one in Israel.

The settlements are front and center now. The differences are these: The Israelis accept that there should be no geographic expansion of settlements beyond their current borders, but the U.S. position is that there should be a complete freeze on any building even within settlements. In the eyes of Israelis, this is impractical and punitive. The Obama administration has sought to distance itself from the Bush administration. Some Israelis view U.S. differences with Israel as a way to extract something from the Arab states. But so far, no Arab states have been forthcoming in putting forward their ideas. That leads to Israelis believing there's an asymmetry with what the Obama administration seeks from Israel and from the Arabs. For now, this tension is harmful because you need trust at the top between the two leaders to deal both with the peace negotiations, once they get under way, and to deal with the Iranian issue. Trust is critical on those two sets of issues.

Every statement from Washington is scrutinized with the narrative in mind that the United States wants to distance itself from Israel.

You've just come back from Israel. How is Obama seen in Israel these days?

President Obama's ideas have not been resonating with the Israeli public. There was a wave of excitement about Obama during the campaign. During the presidential campaign, he had visited Sderot, the Israeli border town, where rockets had been fired from Gaza. There was a sense during the campaign that he understood the predicament that the Israelis were in, being on the receiving end of the rocket fire after they pulled out of Gaza in 2005. When Obama won, Israeli tabloid headlines said Hatikva--the hope. They had hoped for his election, because he wanted something new. This attitude has soured, and he has polled very poorly in Israel. Many Israelis think that he's trying to improve relations with the Arabs at their expense. They do understand that you can improve relations with the Arabs while maintaining good relations with Israel. But a whole host of things have happened in the first six months of his presidency that have led them to believe that this is zero-sum, that he is demanding 100 percent from Israel on a settlement freeze and that his demands on the Arab states have not been of the same caliber. They've been upset that he's reached out to people in Cairo, but he's not communicated directly with the Israeli people. They're very nervous about the U.S. position on Iran, and question how genuine President Obama is when he says an Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable.

The comment by Hillary Clinton last week saying if Iran got a nuclear weapon, we'd have a defense umbrella didn't ease Israeli apprehension, did it?

There's a certain fatalism in the Middle East, and you're hearing it when people say, "Oh, so she's already admitting that Iran will get a bomb." They are saying that the United States has given up on stopping Iran. The Iranian issue is probably the most important because it's existential. Israelis believe they're in a unique position. Every statement from Washington is scrutinized with the narrative in mind that the United States wants to distance itself from Israel.

There's an op-ed piece in the New York Times today by Aluf Benn, who is a prominent editor of Haaretz, saying that Obama should make an effort to talk directly to the Israelis. That seems to be also what you're saying.

There would be a great value in him doing so. We saw President Clinton come across as a president who sounded both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. This president, even with all of his gifts, has not been able to replicate what Clinton did. It could be that he hasn't tried. It could be because he's starting from a different place. It could be because Bill Clinton had three years of relations with Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, that enabled him to build up a reservoir of goodwill. It seems to me that the Clinton model is the right approach: The United States doesn't have to sound pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. It could identify with the aspirations of both sides. That was Clinton's gift, and this president has so far either not decided he wants to emulate that or hasn't been able to. Communicating directly with the Israeli people is certainly a way to start that conversation, but it's coming after six months of sour feelings in Israel. It's probably the only country in the world where Obama is polling less than George Bush [did].

Let's talk nuts and bolts now. What is it that the United States really wants from Israel?

The immediate issue is that it would like Israel to accept a settlement freeze.

And by settlement freeze, U.S. officials mean that if a family has another baby they can't build another room?

That's how it's being interpreted. I don't think that Israel would want to agree to stop expansion within settlements. Until 2003, they thought they had an understanding with the Bush administration that within the perimeter of a settlement, they could build. But that [understanding] at first was disputed by the Obama administration, and now the Obama administration agrees there was some understanding with the Bush administration. There seems to be a question now of how you would enforce the "no expansion" approach. The United States thinks that if you freeze all expansion, there aren't any issues left. For the Israeli public, it comes across as punitive because if something's a patch of land in the middle of a settlement, how does that change anything? Israelis say the standard should be not to expand outward in a way that it would prejudge the negotiations.

If everyone could commit not to expand the settlements beyond their current borders, then everything else is fine tuning. It doesn't really materially change a lot.

Why is it that in the Bush administration, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas met fairly regularly, even though the Palestinians knew there was expansion of settlements within? But now the Palestinians say they won't negotiate until there is a total freeze on settlements.

The United States has raised expectations among the Arabs and maybe the Europeans. If it can't meet those expectations, it will enable the Arabs to say "Oh, you didn't mean what you said, and therefore we're not going to do what we need to do." It seems to me that what Obama wanted to do was use the settlement issue as a way to facilitate negotiations. But ironically, its impact has been dragging on to the point that it's precluding the very negotiations that he wants to promote. We're still in the pregame show. If everyone could commit not to expand the settlements beyond their current borders, then everything else is fine-tuning. It doesn't really materially change a lot. We should really be focusing on the main event. My view of the main event is that of all the issues (Jerusalem, refugees, security, land) the one where differences are most narrow is over land.

This is what you say in the book Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East that you coauthored with Dennis Ross, who now is a top adviser to Obama. You propose that at the start, the Palestinians and Israelis agree to a swap of the land where the main Israeli settlements are located for land inside Israel proper.

I've been delighted by the resonance of this idea of a land swap done in a way where everyone gets something out of it. What's in it for the United States is that we take the settlement issue off the table for the first time in forty years because there's no more settlements once there's a border. Basically, after the swap, if you are an Israeli and you're in the border, you're in Israel. If you're not within the border, you're gone. There's something in it for us, given the friction of the issue. There's something in it for the Palestinians. They can say we got 100 percent of the West Bank, which is equivalent to what Egyptian President Anwar Sadat got in the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1979, all the land Israel occupied in the 1967 War. The moderates will have demonstrated that negotiations and diplomacy have been vindicated. It's not Hamas terror, or rockets, or kidnappings that have made the difference. For Israel, if they can draw the border and actually annex something like 80 percent of the people who live on about 5 percent of the land largely near the old pre-1967 boundary, that would be something tangible.

The land swap was in the Clinton plan, right?

The Clinton plan was all-embracing: Jerusalem, refugees, security. Things were a little easier in 2000, because you had a situation where rockets weren't so important. Nobody thought they were going to be decisive. But after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and being on the receiving end of thousands of rockets, the Israeli view is that if you didn't like the book in Gaza, why would you see the movie in the West Bank? Any withdrawal of the army means that Israel is more vulnerable and not more secure.

Do you think the Palestinians would make the trade-off?

I do. I don't think it means that you concede the other issues, but you do what you can get now and then you have a committee or find a timetable to try and deal with the remaining issues. But Jerusalem is not tucked away somewhere in the Himalayas. It's an international city. The Palestinians said the same thing about Gaza: if we solve Gaza, nobody will think about the West Bank. That's not the way it works.

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