Why US diplomats are visiting Israeli settlers
The Obama administration has made firm demands for Israel to halt all settlement expansion. But political officers are making trips to talk with settlers directly.
Yitzhar, West Bank
While the Obama administration keeps up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cap Jewish settlement expansion, locally based US diplomats are cultivating ties with the very communities they consider an obstacle to the creation of a Palestinian state.Skip to next paragraph
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Their findings, which are passed on to US officials and policymakers, are likely to become more valuable at a time when the US is publicly prodding Israel to stop settlement expansion for the first time in two decades – forcing Mr. Netanyahu into a balancing act between Israel's closest ally and one of his key constituencies.
"I don't think there's anyone in any other diplomatic missions or in the Israeli government that is solely focused on this issue. They had particularly good access," said a former United Nations diplomat who served in Jerusalem and declined to be named.
"It's a complicated terrain in the West Bank," he said in a phone interview. "While there's seemingly a lot of information out there, a lot of it is politically biased. It was always helpful to get straight information."
Opinions in the settlements are key
The US envoy appointed to monitor the implementation of the road map, Gen. Paul Selva, was scheduled to visit the region this week, according to the US diplomat.
In recent years, a succession of young political officers from the US consulate in Jerusalem have met with leaders in places ranging from the staid "settlement blocs" near the Green Line – Israel's pre-1967 border – to isolated ideological settlements, including unauthorized outposts.
A spokesman for the US consulate in Jerusalem declined to comment on the work of the settler liaison except to say it is not secret, but a US diplomat said the idea is to gather information.
"We need to know what these people are thinking to better understand the issues," the diplomat said.
Political officers: In-house reporters for diplomats
Indeed, political officers function as in-house reporters for diplomatic communities, winning the trust of local officials – and reaping insider information. The findings are passed on to an interested audience of policymakers back in Washington, Western diplomats in the region, and the team of US officials monitoring Palestinian and Israeli compliance with commitments under the road map peace plan.
Though the US can monitor settlement expansion with satellite photography, the dialogue offers provide a nonconfrontational way for diplomats to get an on-the-ground look that offers a resolution unavailable from spy equipment.
By contrast, monitors from antisettlement nongovernment groups like Israel's Peace Now are often met with hostility when they meet settlers. The information is also considered valuable because the settlers are generally reluctant to speak openly with foreign and local Israeli media.