Amidst the whirlwind of activity surrounding President Obama s diplomatic efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, one issue has stood out among others as particularly contentious. The renewed statements by President Obama, Secretary Clinton and the rest of the US administration on ending Israeli settlement activity has caused considerable discord on how to find common ground in this controversial issue.
The Obama administration s demand that Israel end all settlement activity, including natural growth, has been deemed unacceptable by Netanyahu s government, which insists that a total freeze will severely aggravate normal life and engender internal political rift.
Mr. Obama reaffirmed his position in his address to the Muslim world from Cairo when he stated, so it is unlikely that the US administration will retreat from this position. This will undoubtedly compel Netanyahu to revise his stance on settlements and a two-statesolution as he addresses his countrymen on Sunday.
A close review of the Israeli point of view suggests that putting an immediate stop to natural growth on settlements, especially those which have become full fledged cities like Ma ale Adumim, will be extraordinarily difficult to implement both politically and practically. Not only would the settler s movement rattle the government, but violence might inadvertently erupt, creating a scene that the Netanyahu government would want to avoid at all costs. The question is, what can be done to resolve this problem which has such potential to strain US-Israeli relations and undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peaceprocess?
To understand the serious nature of the problem it first must be put in its proper context: More than anything else, the existence of the settlements reminds every Palestinian of the Israeli occupation, and the expansion of these settlements not only reinforces that painful feeling and humiliation, but suggests that Israel is intent on maintaining the occupation indefinitely. The fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu has refused thus far to accept the idea of a two-state solution further strengthens the Palestinian argument that Israel has no intention of relinquishing the occupied territories. President Obama must insist on stopping the expansion of the settlements as a prerequisite to instilling some confidence and integrity into the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Mr. Netanyahu has thus far been against the freeze, partially because it would imply an early concession on one of his main bargaining chips: the idea of the two-state solution.
To resolve this quandary it seems unlikely that President Obama will settle for less than a “moratorium on further expansion. Changing the semantics from a freeze to a temporary moratorium could initially provide some maneuvering room to agree on a workable formula. A temporary moratorium would mean a halt on the expansion of all settlements and settlement related activity during a set negotiating process, likely between three to six months. This might well work if it were done with the understanding that Israel and the Palestinians would enter immediately into negotiations with direct and active American involvement to determine the future borders of the two states. Once the borders have been agreed upon, Israel can expand settlement activity within them and will be prohibited from any development outside these borders.
Whether the objective of the negotiations from Netanyahu s perspective would be a Palestinian state or not, he has already conceded as much when he said that the Palestinians have the right to self-rule living side by side with Israel in peace. Netanyahu may be able to sell the moratorium idea to his centre-right coalition partners because the alternative will be a direct confrontation with the United States, which could bring his government down. This may explain his likely change of heart, especially when recent polls show a majority of Israelis support the freeze.
During these negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians can agree within a few months as to which of the settlements will be incorporated into Israel proper under a peace agreement, and what contiguous land of equal size and quality can be swapped with the Palestinians in its place, which should be enforced under American monitoring. The two sides have negotiated in the past (at Camp David and in Taba in 2000-2001) and agreed in principle about the status of these settlements.
Although the Palestinian Authority will want all issues on the table to reach a final status agreement – including the Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem – it appears that they are willing to discuss borders first once Israel accepts the moratorium. Mahmoud Abbas, along with Jordan s King Abdullah has publicly agreed that borders would be the first order of business.
Throughout the duration of these negotiations, the Palestinian camp would be expected to make discernable progress on security and ending incitement, in keeping with the mission of the US security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority General Keith Dayton.
It should be noted that historically the Israeli public has not tolerated and will not support any Israeli government that alienates the United States.
Moreover, no Israeli Prime Minister could hold a government together should the United States decide to exert direct pressure-which the Obama administration appears to be willing to wield. The Wye River negotiations between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Clinton in 1998 over Hebron clearly indicate that Netanyahu is capable of surpassing expectations. The idea here is to start the negotiations with a significant concession, and then let momentum and American pressure move the process forward.
Part II of this commentary, will be published tomorrow, June 11, 2009.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. [email protected]