Is Obama considering 'sanctions' on Israel?

A lot of partisan media outlets and Republican politicians appear to believe so. 

Susan Walsh/AP
President Barack Obama talks about the economy before announcing that Ashton Carter is his nominee for defense secretary, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington.

In certain corners of the Internet – mainly at the intersection of Israel lovers and Obama haters – a thinly sourced claim holds that Barack Obama is considering "sanctions" against Israel over its expanding settlements in the West Bank.

Right-leaning publications and outlets like The Free Beacon, The Blaze, The Daily Caller and Fox News have all echoed this claim, citing "reports."

On Friday, Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, issued a statement on this "issue."

“Not only is the Administration rejecting new sanctions to end Iran’s nuclear threat, it's now reportedly developing sanctions against our closest ally, Israel," he said. "This move only worsens perceptions that the Administration treats our friends like enemies and our enemies like friends.”

Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, issued a similar statement. And this morning Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush, got in on the act.

Yet there is no evidence that Obama is considering sanctions on Israel. The original story that fired up these partisan voices ran in Israel's Haaretz and is titled "US mulls harsher action against settlement construction." The article cites unnamed Israeli officials claiming that "White House officials held a classified discussion a few weeks ago about the possibility of taking active measures against the settlements."

In concrete terms, what could this mean? According to those unnamed officials: "For example, the United States may refrain from vetoing condemnatory resolutions against the settlements in the UN Security Council. Or it could issue clearer instructions to American officials about the ban on cooperating with the settlements or funding activity in them."

Whether the Obama Administration is planning any changes in its stance on Israeli settlement construction – a thorn in the side of US mediation in peace efforts for generations now – is unclear. But even if the administration did decline to use its vetoes on Israel's behalf, or sought to block US government money from going to settlements in what is deemed occupied territory under international law, these measures wouldn't exactly be "sanctions."

Consider the economic sanctions on Iran that have been ratcheted up by the US since 2010. Here's how Brookings fellow Suzanne Maloney described them earlier this year:

Over the course of the past four years, however, the sanctions against Iran — and the context for them internationally and within Iran — have changed dramatically. Since 2010, the sanctions' impact on Iran has been severe: its oil exports and revenues plummeted; the value of its currency eroded; trade disruptions shuttered businesses and exacerbated inflation. Quietly, a backlash emerged among Iran's political elites against the country's creeping isolation, and the June 2013 presidential election ushered in a moderate new president and the beginnings of a diplomatic breakthrough on the nuclear crisis — achievements that most observers attribute to the impact of sanctions.

And just a year ago, Obama's White House was campaigning vigorously against a European Union plan to outlaw funding to Israeli settlement groups.

The US has been a steady funder of Israel since the country's independence. Since 1996 alone, the US has given $50 billion to Israel, most of that military aid. The earmark for this year was over $3 billion.

Reductions and delays in such aid have been rare in modern US history. You have to go back to Ronald Reagan, who halted delivery of cluster munitions to Israel between 1982 and 1988 for the last major step to curtail military aid (Reagan acted over concerns the munitions were being used illegally in the war in Lebanon). The last US financial rebuke to Israel was under President George H. W. Bush, who delayed the provision of loan guarantees to Israel in 1991 contingent on a freeze in settlement expansion. The following year the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to a freeze. The loan guarantees were delivered, though settlement expansion continued.

Is Obama mulling doing, well, something about settlements? Perhaps. But there's no evidence of anything approaching "sanctions" at the moment. 

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