I was both understanding of and puzzled by the Obama administration’s reaction to Israel’s announcement of new settlement construction in occupied Palestinian lands.
It was just a few weeks ago that the White House signed a new 10-year agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu committing a total of $38 billion in military assistance to Israel. In announcing the deal, President Obama noted that this is the most significant support package ever offered to Israel, demonstrating his unparalleled commitment to that state’s security. Shortly thereafter, Obama, speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, cautioned Israel that it “cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land.”
And so it was like a slap in the face when, when Netanyahu announced that he was building new settlement units in colonies deep in the West Bank, along with ongoing plans to expand settlements in other sensitive areas of the occupied lands—in Arab areas of Jerusalem, in the heart of Hebron, and around Bethlehem. All of these are clear provocations and when seen in combination make clear Israel’s intention to maintain its control over the West Bank, making impossible the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Adding insult to injury was the fact that Netanyahu’s the announcement came just two days before Obama was to travel to Israel to speak at the memorial service for Shimon Peres.
And so, I was not surprised when the reactions from the White House and the State Department were quite harsh. The White House spokesperson noted that every US administration, since 1967, has opposed settlements in the occupied lands and reaffirmed their view that expanding settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem only served to further frustrate a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The White House went further by accusing Netanyahu of violating his commitment to the US that he would refrain from any further settlement expansion noting, caustically that “l guess, when we’re talking about how good friends treat one another, that’s a concern, as well.”
For its part, the State Department spokesperson “strongly condemned [the Israeli] plan that would create a significant new settlement deep in the West Bank.” He referred to the expansion as being yet “another step toward cementing a one-state reality of perpetual occupation” and added that “Such moves will only draw condemnation from the international community…and further call into question Israel’s commitment to achieving a negotiated peace”. He went further, adding that the Administration was “deeply troubled” that Israel took this action so soon after the signing of the new massive military aid agreement.
While fully understanding that the administration is upset, I admit to also being puzzled. Netanyahu has been playing them for almost eight years, repeatedly sticking his finger in their eye and getting away with it. In fact, it is a running joke, that Netanyahu, either before or after high level US visits, will defiantly announce new settlement plans, boasting that he knows how to control America.
On three occasions, Netanyahu used invitations to address the US Congress in an effort to stymie the goals of the president—succeeding twice. In the one instance where he lost (on the Iran deal), he ended up being rewarded with the $38 billion arms agreement.
And so after almost eight years of frustrating the administration’s efforts at peace-making, of continued settlement expansion, of systematic violations of Palestinian rights, and of repeated episodes of near unrestrained gross violence, why should anyone have been surprised that Netanyahu would pocket the $38 billion and once again flaunt his commitments to the president? He acts with impunity, precisely because there has been no accountability for his behavior. The White House and State Department may cry foul, issuing strong statements. But Netanyahu knows that it will end there—with no price to be paid for bad behavior.
As long as the US allows this pattern to continue, the spoiled child will take advantage of the situation—taunting, acting out, and getting his way.
This administration, like those before it, will argue that their hands are tied—that Congress will undercut them or overrule them. But in the last three months of this administration, President Obama has an opportunity to set things right. He can, for example, restate the 1970’s State Department finding (which has never been overturned) that all settlement activity is illegal. He can allow the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution declaring the illegality of settlements and imposing international sanctions against Israel for its violations of international law. And he can refuse to block an Arab effort to refer the issue to the International Criminal Court.
Israel will throw a tantrum (as spoiled children are wont to do). And Israel’s lobby will, no doubt, spring into action demanding that Congress repudiate the administration’s effort. But the matter will be out of their hands and in the court of international community. A strong signal will be sent to Israel, that they cannot continue their oppression of Palestinians and their creeping annexation of the occupied territories. And it will empower and embolden Israeli and Palestinian peace forces.
Finally, such a demonstration of decisiveness will help to salvage President Obama’s legacy in the Middle East. It will provide him with the opportunity to be remembered as the president who provided unprecedented security assistance for Israel, while at the same time putting his foot down and making that state’s rogue leadership face the international consequences for their self-destructive behavior.
James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute.