Memo to Israel (and Abbas): Obama firm on settlements

On the eve of the Palestinian president's Oval Office visit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that the administration meant zero growth, period.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
A section of Israel's separation barrier is seen in the West Bank town of Aram on Thursday.

TEL AVIV – The Obama administration has turned up the heat on Israel with an explicit call for a comprehensive freeze on the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

President Barack Obama "wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions," said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton Wednesday, on the eve of Mr. Obama's visit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama gave a joint press conference after their White House meeting last week, he left out such blunt language, which could have embarrassed the premier with certain constituents back home.

But with Mr. Abbas's Oval Office appointment Thursday afternoon and a major policy speech in Cairo next week, Obama and his administration likely felt the need to clarify the presiden'ts expectations for the settlement freeze called for under the Bush administration's 2003 road map – a blueprint for peace agreed to by Israel.

With Palestinians restless, Abbas needs tangible results – and soon

Abbas desperately needs to prove to a skeptical constituency that US-led peace negotiations can yield political dividends. The Arab world, which is getting restless for concrete action from Obama, has repeatedly called on him to pressure Israel on Palestinian statehood, the Gaza blockade, and the settlement issue.

Most of the international community, and Arabs in particular, consider settlement growth as eating away at the viability and territorial integrity of a future Palestinian state.

Israel says that it is observing a settlement freeze because it isn't building new settlements. But it continues to assert a right to build in existing settlements, which leaves room for steady growth in the number of Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – where the Palestinians want to establish the capital of their future state.

Some 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank, with annual population growth rates of about 5 percent. Click here to see how one settlement, newly linked to Israel proper via a four-lane expressway, has changed in the last 18 months.

Absolute Israeli freeze on settlements would be unprecedented, hard to implement

Israel has signaled that it is ready to consider removing about two dozen illegal settlement outposts with an estimated 700 people. So far they've taken down three with relatively few permanent residents.

No Israeli government has ever observed an absolute settlement freeze, and Obama's position appears to be more stringent than the previous administration's. Former President George W. Bush had a secret "understanding" with former prime minister Ariel Sharon that allowed natural expansion in some settlements, which would later be incorporated into Israel proper.

Last week, the Monitor reported that forcing a comprehensive ban on building is likely to strain US-Israeli ties, and will likely be hard to implement on the ground.

Cracking down on settlements would also be likely to cause Netanyahu problems with members of his right-wing government who are ideologically and even theologically opposed to conceding land.

The Israeli press reported yesterday that Orthodox Jewish rabbis are instructing soldiers to refuse orders to remove the outposts.

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