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.
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.
The nearly 300,000 settlers in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, are spread over a diverse range of settlements. They have political influence that is disproportionate to their percentage of Israel's population of 7 million.
A recent visit
Akiva Ovitz, an aide to the mayor of the settlement of Beitar Illit, said that a political officer visited the city just a few weeks ago. He cast the relationship in a positive light.
"They want to hear how the city is developing, what is happening with building plans, and with the population," he said. "It's to keep in touch with the settlements and to hear about their needs."
But the policy shift under President Obama has made some settlers less receptive about meeting the diplomats. That's because settlers consider the Obama administration's public criticism of the settlements meddling in Israel's sovereign affairs and a possible precursor to settlement evacuations.
Daniella Weiss, a former mayor of the settlement of Kedumim in the northern West Bank who has also helped settler youths set up outposts, says she had become accustomed to annual visits by US diplomats and took them seriously. But recently, she declined a request.
"I felt that they are alienated and they don't feel solidarity. I said I don't see a point in these meetings," she says. "I am also critical of the president.... The US wants to weaken our hold here."
Settlers hope frequent visits will change views
Even so, many remain open about the opportunity to state their case directly to a representative of the US. The settlers believe that the US diplomats may be more easily convinced if they only visit.
Yigal Amitay, a spokesman for the settlement of Yitzhar, boasts of a "heartfelt" meeting with a previous political officer he called "Matityahu," Hebrew for Matthew. Discussions usually covered topics ranging from clashes between settlers and Palestinians to the ideological bent of Yitzhar, a small settlement infamous as a source of vigilantism against Palestinians and even against the Israeli army. His main criticism was that political officers' tour of duty in the West Bank is not long enough to understand the nuances of the settler community.
"I think the interest of America is that there shouldn't be another Khomeini-ist country in the Middle East," says Mr. Amitay. "Through an honest dialogue, they will understand that it's in their interest to oppose a Palestinian state."
Though Amitay referred to Mr. Obama's efforts to repair US relations with the Muslim world as "naive," he says he's still waiting for the consulate political officer to call for a meeting.
Others, however, are more suspicious. Shaul Goldstein, the head of the settlers council in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem, recently met with former President Jimmy Carter. But he complained that the discussions are not held on a high-enough level.
"We call them the CIA agents because we never know who they are," he said in a recent phone conversation. "It's not enough because it's too far from the decisionmakers."