from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Israeli Settlements: Back to the Future

October 25, 2011

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Palestinian Territories

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According to news reports, the Obama Administration has a new proposal to cope with the issue of construction in Israeli settlements. Israel would “halt the construction of new neighborhoods but could continue building in existing settlements….” The idea is that Israel would refrain from any construction outside current settlement boundaries. If there is construction only within existing settlements, there would be no American condemnations.

If this is a good idea, a decent compromise, one can only wonder why it took the Obama White House nearly three years to get there. For this policy was precisely what the Bush Administration agreed with prime ministers Sharon and Olmert.

In the early months of the Obama Administration, officials flatly denied such a deal had ever existed. In June, 2009 I wrote about this Obama error in the Wall Street Journal.

And error it was: in December 2003, prime minister Sharon stated that “Israel will meet all its obligations with regard to construction in the settlements. There will be no construction beyond the existing construction line….” Had the Obama Administration realized the value of what had been achieved by its predecessors and continued the policy, we would not have endured nearly three years without any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Nor would the administration have tried instead to impose a total construction freeze, a condition that no Israeli government could meet and that thus created a new and insuperable obstacle to negotiations.

Now, if this news story is true, the administration is moving back to the Bush position. Well, better late than never. But it is likely that the Palestinians will now call such a deal too little too late, and reject it. Perhaps, if  the Palestinian rejection is made very strongly in private, administration spokesmen will deny that any such proposal was ever made. But it ought to be made, because these terms are sensible: as long as there is construction only within built-up areas, there is no harm to Palestinians, no use of additional land, and no additional burden in future negotiations.

It would be nice if administration officials admitted that after nearly three years they had come to understand all of this, but I guess that is asking for too much. It will be quite enough if they abandon their “construction freeze” mania and move to a more practical and realistic view.