The Writing Is On the Settlement Walls

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A paralyzing equation has long bedeviled would-be Middle East peacemakers.

JERUSALEM — A paralyzing equation has long bedeviled would-be Middle East peacemakers: either, go directly to negotiating the kernel issues of the Israel-Palestine conflict — borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem — and leave, in the context of a full peace, the thorny question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank to fall naturally into place. Or, tackle the settlements head-on, thereby opening the way for a peace drive.
Under U.S. prodding, during the past decade the first side of the equation has been tried over and over again. Fruitlessly. The result has been a zero-sum game.

Now, U.S. President Barack Obama is plumping for the second approach: the dismantling of Israel's settlement policy. An absolute freeze on all settlement activity is a must, the White House says.

Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, speaking on Israeli Public Television, noted that the President's pursuit of peace is contingent not only on Israel responding, but also on the Arab world responding (in terms of gradual normalizing of relations in the spirit of the Arab peace initiative). But, stressed Indyk, the U.S. believes it impossible to convince the Arab and Muslim world to start moving without tangible action from Israel first: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must demonstrate that he is serious about peace.

Netanyahu, though, still believes he can subvert the Obama challenge. Sidestepping a meeting with U.S. presidential envoy to the region Senator George Mitchell, planned for Friday in Paris, the Israeli leader is instead dispatching his Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, to Washington for talks at the beginning of next week. The Israeli purpose is to turn around what is being labeled by some Israeli officials as a U.S. fixation with the \"settlements first\" strategy.

Barak believes that if there is real progress on both the Palestinian peace track and that with the whole Arab world, that would minimize the settlement issue considerably, an Israeli government official told IPS. A source close to Barak added: \"If there's progress on the peace talks, the status of the big settlement blocs close to the 1967 border (which Israel hopes to keep in any final peace agreement) will become clearer, and the gaps on the core issues will be easier to bridge.\" Israel and the United States have already agreed that all \"unauthorized settlement outposts\" will be removed \"within weeks or months\", no new settlements built, and no Palestinian land confiscated. Serious disagreement remains, however, over settlement construction projects already under way.

Israel is reportedly considering a temporary (few months) freeze on all building — excluding those projects already under way — provided the U.S. agrees that, once the freeze ends, Israel will be permitted to go on building inside existing settlements to cater for \"natural growth\" of the settler population.

To buttress the Israeli argument that settlements are a secondary issue, Barak is already moving on a parallel track. According to the reliable daily Ha'aretz, there has been a dramatic change over recent weeks in Israel's roadblock policy within the West Bank. The Israeli army has lifted some of the permanent roadblocks which for years have sorely impeded free movement by Palestinians in their territory.

Excluding the checkpoints between the West Bank and Israel itself which remain in place, the report says the army is now manning only ten checkpoints within the West Bank. Eighteen months ago, no fewer than 35 such roadblocks were fully operational.

This move amounts to a first Israeli acknowledgment that the security situation in the West Bank has improved as a result of a U.S.-led effort to build up the security forces of the Palestinian Authority under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Since these new Israeli security steps are implemented by the defense establishment, Netanyahu has not needed to seek cabinet endorsement, and has thus been able to sidestep his right-wing coalition.

But the partial easing of the easily removable symbol of occupation — the checkpoints — is most unlikely to get him off the Obama hook. The President's decisiveness on settlements demonstrates that what the U.S. is after are the permanent symbols of occupation, and that he will not be deflected from his purpose.

During 20 years of failed peacemaking, Israel's modus operandi — and also the U.S. modus operandi — has been problematic. Even when successive Israeli governments demonstrated a genuine commitment to move peace forward, it was invariably accompanied by the creation of new realities in the West Bank. The U.S. invariably gave continued settlement expansion a nod and a wink. Inevitably, real progress towards peace was impeded. Arab confidence in the U.S. was eroded.

Under Obama, the U.S. is less intent on challenging Arab peace intentions. Rather, by challenging the Israeli leader's unwillingness to deconstruct Israel's settlement policy, he is testing Netanyahu's recently declared acceptance of a two-state solution.

The high-profile argument has become a test of Obama's credibility. Beyond the President's overtures to the Muslim and Arab values as enunciated in his Cairo speech earlier this month, what is really changing negative Muslim and Arab attitudes towards the U.S. is the relentless insistence that a settlement freeze is a U.S. \"national interest\", not just in the interests of the states in the region.

Benjamin Netanyahu is sorely misjudging this shift in the overall thrust of U.S. policy.

For four decades, Israel was posited as the fulcrum of any broad U.S. Middle East strategy. That could all change if Netanyahu doesn't accept the U.S. settlement demand. It would mean not the abandoning of Israel, nor the jeopardizing of Israel's security, but it could very well mean the downsizing of Israel to the role of \"just one of key U.S. allies in the region.\"

By accepting, even unwillingly, the need for a future Palestinian state, Netanyahu may have begun the deconstruction of Israeli right-wing ideology. Obama wants more from him — the dismantling of his settlement ideology. If the Prime Minister refuses to accept what the U.S. has defined as a \"national interest,\" Israel could well land up being labeled not \"just one key ally\" in the Middle East, but \"a problematic ally.\"