Why Israel will thwart Obama on settlements

For the Jewish state, the settlements are eminently sensible and their growth is almost certain to continue, either openly or stealthily.

The idea that the Obama administration can advance the Middle East peace process by having Israel freeze its construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank stretches credulity.

Does any serious observer of the region believe that Israel's appetite for land – owned and occupied for generations by Palestinians – is going to abate?

The Israeli land grab has continued for four decades, in defiance of international law and most US presidents. US Middle East envoy George Mitchell has been trying to secure a halt, but his efforts follow a well-worn path that typically ends in charade.

Just weeks ago, the Israeli government evicted two extended Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem, clearing the way for more houses for Jews in traditionally Palestinian neighborhoods.

Israeli settlements have become a kind of concrete kudzu to Palestinians. The Fatah party recently renewed its commitment to resisting them, holding that "the Palestinians have the right to resist the Israeli occupation by all possible means."

But for the Jewish state, the settlements are eminently sensible and their growth is almost certain to continue, either openly or stealthily. As Interior Minister Eli Yishai put it Aug. 10, expanding settlements near Jerusalem is vital for "security, national interests, and is just and necessary."

Every new Jewish apartment complex enlarges and deepens the Jewish footprint on occupied land. The California-style townhouses atop the hills of ancient Samaria and Judea are seen as security buffers for an Israeli island in a hostile Islamic sea. Israel's feeling of vulnerability is intensified by the growing Arab population already within its borders.

The settlements have become affordable suburbs for Israelis otherwise priced out of the metropolitan markets. More than 300,000 Jewish settlers now call the West Bank home.

Further, religious and ultrareligious Jewish settlers insist they have divinely bestowed title to the land. Few passages in the Bible are more frightening to Arabs than Deuteronomy 11:24:

"Every place whereon the soles of your feet shall tread shall be yours: from the wilderness and Lebanon, from the river, the river Euphrates, even unto the uttermost sea shall your coast be."

Palestinian Arabs are too weak to legally or militarily challenge the Jewish state's internal expansion. An Israeli court recently ruled that Israel can now confiscate land belonging to Palestinians who once resided in an area but are now refugees pending final settlement.

Having lived in Jerusalem for five years during the salad days of the peace process in the 1990s, I watched settlement builders nibble away at what were once Palestinian homes, villages, and pastures.

From Jerusalem southward, the construction of the Har Homa settlement crabs outward to the doorsteps of Palestinian Bethlehem. From the air, these settlements appear a terrestrial octopus, extending out to ultimately link up with the more militant Jewish settlements farther south in Hebron, another city with a large Palestinian majority.

Settlement building resembles military flanking and encirclement maneuvers, isolating Palestinian population centers. In Jerusalem, there are at least half a dozen Arab neighborhoods, including the Mount of Olives, threatened by Israel's voracious hunger for land. Quoted in the newspaper Haaretz, Sarah Kreimer of Ir Amim, a group specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations, says, "In each of these places, plans are being advanced for construction whose ultimate purpose is to disconnect the Old City from Palestinian Jerusalem."

Israelis have brilliantly created a sense of inevitability to all this. Yet, the moral difficulties of moving indigenous peoples off the land by subterfuge or force are obvious. When in the past I've raised the ethical implications of these land appropriations, Israelis have dismissed me, saying, "Hey, you Americans did it to the Indians."

American presidents have often quietly nudged Israel to freeze the settlements, but their actual leverage has been minimal. Israelis have elected both doves and hawks as prime minister, but virtually all Israeli governments supported settlement expansion in varying degrees.

Jewish political clout in America ought not be underestimated. A former chairman of the American Israel Political Action Committee once boasted to me, "We got [Sen.] Chuck Percy [an Illinois Republican who was narrowly defeated in 1984] when he crossed us on the Palestinians." President Obama will face a similar threat at election time if he defies Israel's expansionist instincts.

US presidents have so frequently pledged unshakable support for Israel that it's created the illusion that US and Israeli interests are identical. It might be useful for Mr. Obama and his Middle East team to publicly point to serious differences with Israel when they arise. If the US can have public disagreements with its allies, including Britain, why should Israel be exempted from what could be a healthy debate?

Jewish settlement construction may temporarily downshift into neutral. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton may hail "a building freeze." But if the past is prologue, the first time Obama is distracted by another domestic or international crisis, and Washington isn't looking, the Israeli bulldozers will be back at work.

Walter Rodgers served as the CNN bureau chief in Jerusalem for 5-1/2 years. He writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly edition.

For a different perspective, read David Wilder's Mr. Obama, Hebron is an eternal home for Jews.

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