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Although somewhat quieted by the successful Netanyahu-Obama meeting, a predominant theme in current talk about U.S. Middle East policy is that there will soon be a U.S.-Israel confrontation. This is so expected that there are daily misinterpretations or fabrications of events implying some anti-Israel step by the Obama administration.
Such things might well-almost inevitably will-happen at some point. But by the end of May 2009, there had still been no material action hostile to Israel undertaken by the administration.
What is curious, and counterproductive for the administration, is the one area which might be the scene of direct confrontation: the settlement issue.
Israel does not start new settlements. The issue is a narrower one: adding a building or even rooms or floors onto buildings in existing settlements. A second potential issue is over construction in the east Jerusalem area.
So far, there is a consensus in Israel that the same policy as has been held since 1993 should continue: no new settlements but construction on existing settlements.
From the administration’s standpoint, making this the big push doesn’t make sense and is likely to lead to looking foolish in the future no matter how it comes out.
First, if Israel refuses, is the United States going to apply disproportionate diplomatic force on the issue? Will huge threats or actions be deployed to make a small change?
Second, there is no implication of an enforced reciprocity. That is, Israel is not being offered anything for making such a concession on a policy held by the last six prime ministers. The United States, for example, urged the Palestinian Authority (PA) to stop incitement for murdering Israelis in its media and other institutions but there was no statement that this was a high priority or that the United States would punish the PA for not doing so.
How, then, will the United States get Israel to take steps of much greater importance it will want in future if a lot of political capital is used up on this one?
If the United States fails to force a change in Israeli policy it will look foolish. But what if it succeeds? The PA will just move to the next item on its list: refusing to negotiate with Israel unless Netanyahu explicitly endorses a “two-state” solution.
And the PA will do or give nothing in exchange for a cessation of Israeli settlement construction. Neither will the Arab states. They will not help it more on the Iran issue or meet any other U.S. request.
On the contrary, they will say that now the United States has demonstrated it can get Israel to do what it wants. Thus, Washington has no excuse for not ordering Israel to withdraw from all the West Bank, agree to an independent Palestinian state without preconditions, and do whatever else the Arab regimes want. Indeed PA leader Mahmoud Abbas said that in his interviews while in Washington.
In short, the United States will have reaped zero advantage from achieving its current number-one priority on the peace process.
And what will it do if the PA refuses to cooperate even after a settlement freeze, threaten to cut off aid or withdraw the military training mission?
The administration has already signalled the PA that the Palestinians are doing America a favor by taking the dollars. After all, doesn’t Obama say that the peace process and good relations with the Palestinians are the keystone of U.S. Middle East policy? Hasn’t Washington accepted the notion that keeping the PA happy is the way to get Arabs and Muslims to love America? So it has already given away the leverage needed to get anything done.
As usually happens nowadays, I’m unaware of any government, media or analytical response to the points made here. Something like “stop settlement activity” becomes a mantra which involves no serious thought, longer-term strategy, or response to criticisms like the ones I’m making here.
Stopping settlement activity will not advance a diplomatic solution. That’s a fact.
PS: No sooner did I write the note above than I saw this. It is an article by Rami Khouri who cheers Obama’s focusing on settlements and then says: Great. Once we stop all the settlements the next step is to demand the “Right of Return.” I think that’s a fair reading of his article. It just shows how pushing on the settlements will not “moderate” the Palestinians. As I wrote in the article, they just go on to their next demand.
In Abbas’s Washington Post interview, he made it clear that once the settlements were stopped the next step was for the United States to demand a timetable for a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Without, of course, the PA giving anything in return. Then when Israel has given up everything, the Arab side will discuss what it will do in order to make peace.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge), The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).