President Obama has made his opposition to Israeli settlements the centerpiece of his efforts to promote negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and much is being written about the need for Israel to freeze all building in Jewish communities in Gaza and the West Bank. The settlement issue, however, is more complicated than the administration has made out, and its exclusive focus on settlements at the expense of more pressing issues may be more of an impediment to the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” than a solution to it.
Start with Israel’s rights and obligations in regard to the settlements. The Mandate for Palestine, which endures as an article of international law, gives Jews sanction to settle in the dispute territories and allows for natural growth of the resident Jewish population. That right was honored by President Bush, who allowed Israel to engage in limited settlement building, but the Obama administration has refused to follow its predecessor.
Also significant to the settlement question is the Palestinians’ refusal to compromise on the issue. On Sunday, for instance, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu publicly invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to sit with him, any place, for negotiations. But Abbas has pointedly rebuffed Netanyahu, declaring that he will not sit at the negotiating table with him until Israel freezes all building in the settlements.
On examination, this is a strange demand. In the year and more following the November 2007 peace conference at Annapolis, Abbas sat with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert a number of times, even though building was going on in the settlements. So, why does he refuse to do so now? The impetus for this new, more stringent Palestinian pre-condition for talks is clear: The man in the White House has set a hard tone on settlements and in effect sanctioned Palestinian intransigence.
Indeed, there are those who believe that Abbas expects Obama to deliver Israel on a silver platter, ultimately forcing the Jewish state to accept refugees and move back to the Green Line. Thus, goes this argument, Abbas is in no rush to negotiate what he will be able to achieve largely without negotiations.
But another theory is more credible: Abbas, a weak leader, is in no position to negotiate a state. The disarray in the PA is actually so great that IDF intelligence currently predicts that Abbas is going to postpone elections scheduled for 2010 to 2012. Factor in the presence of Hamas, with whom the PA has not been able to come to terms in a unity government, and Abas’s position seems weaker still. Under these circumstances, delaying negotiations with Israel would suit Abbas just fine.
That seems to be true in the long term, as well. Had Palestinian leaders like Abbas and Arafat really wanted a state for their people, they could have had it in 2000, with Ehud Barak’s offer, and again last year with Ehud Olmert’s offer. Abbas is quite content playing the victim, accepting record-breaking sums of international largesse, and not having to wrestle with the need to compromise or to assume responsibility for a sovereign state.
What Obama has done is provide Abbas with the hook that allows him to back off from negotiations and to make it seem like Netanyahu’s fault, to boot. In a word, Obama has made it possible for Abbas to proceed without accountability. Ironically by insisting so adamantly that a settlement building freeze must be in place at the beginning of the peace process, Obama is making it less likely that this process will succeed – or even begin.
Yet there’s even more going on, and it is considerably more serious than all of Abbas’s stalling and machinations. Obama, by insisting that settlements constitute the major stumbling block to a peace agreement, has shifted international attention away from the emerging Islamic state in Gaza. The Arab Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh recently observed that “Hamas is gradually turning the Gaza Strip into a Taliban-style Islamic entity that poses a threat not only to Israel, but also to the Americans, Europeans, and moderate Arabs and Muslims.” According to Toameh, “The high profile controversy over Israel's policy of building new homes in Jewish settlements has in fact facilitated Hamas's mission.”
Toameh quotes a Palestinian journalist in the Gaza Strip as saying, “The Americans and Europeans are fighting against Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan while Hamas is building a new fundamentalist entity here. The settlements may be an obstacle to peace but Hamastan will soon become a major threat to stability in the region.”
How to explain Obama’s confused priorities? One answer lies in his clear intent to demonstrate to the Muslim and Arab worlds that he is tough with Israel and capable of imposing his demands upon the Jewish state. With this ruthless power play, in which Israel serves as a reluctant pawn, Obama is able to score considerable points abroad. The problem is that, by turning his back on rising Islamic radicalism in Gaza, Obama is doing inestimable damage to the genuine interests of the United States.