Obama demands that Israel stop settlements. How feasible is that?
The US and Israel agreed this week to establish a joint committee on how to implement a freeze outlined in the 2003 road map.
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While Israelis and Palestinians negotiated the nitty-gritty details of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza in the final year of the Bush administration, US military and diplomatic officials were deployed in the West Bank to monitor both Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the road map. The peace plan calls on the Palestinians to rein in militants while Israel ceases settlement activity and lifts movement restrictions on Palestinians.
After a pause during the transition at the White House, American monitors – drawn from the military and the State Department – are ramping up efforts to keep tabs on implementation of a settlement freeze. US envoy George Mitchell is also setting up an office, which is expected to be involved in refereeing.
The monitors are trying to build a database independent of the information they get from the Israeli government. Monitors will also have to find out how Israel's government responds to violations.
The question for US policymakers is how to use evidence of future violations. The Obama administration has many tools at its disposal: a private protest through diplomats, a public report card, economic pressure or political pressure, among others. That risks damaging ties with a close ally as well as instigating political protest from American Jews.
"There aren't firm answers yet," says the diplomat. "You're churning up new soil that hasn't been plowed in a while."
More than 300,000 settlers today
Another former prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, announced a freeze on the establishment of new settlements shortly after he was elected in 1992. But building in existing settlements continued apace. From 1993 to 2000, the years of the Oslo peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, there was a 71 percent boom in the Jewish settler population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The total rose to 198,000, not including those in East Jerusalem.
As of the end of 2008, settler numbers have grown to 300,000 living at about 120 settlements and dozens of outposts. In addition to residences, the growing community needs public buildings and better roads. The position of the current government is that building should be permitted to allow for the "natural growth" of settlement population.
'We're not the 51st state'