Obama's Prizes for Israel Are Not 'Pressure'

On 13 July, President Barack
Obama received 16 leaders of the most prominent pro-Israel
organizations at the White House. The gathering was an effort to
assuage American Jewish concerns about US pressure on Israel over a
settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank.

One participant argued that in the past any progress toward peace has
only been made when there was "no light" between American and Israeli
positions. "I disagree," the president responded according to one
witness, and pointed out that during eight years of the Bush
administration, "there was no light between the United States and
Israel, and nothing got accomplished."

Obama reaffirmed his commitment to achieving a settlement to the
Arab-Israeli conflict and emphasized the short window and special
opportunity that he had to produce one given his outreach efforts to
Arabs and Muslims.

All of this will reinforce the faith of those convinced that Obama's
policies mark a decisive shift from his predecessors, a rupture in the
Israeli-American relationship, and can produce what has eluded all
others: a workable and agreed two-state solution.

Obama has consistently stressed his belief in the "unbreakable"
US-Israeli relationship. Considering his actions and words so far,
there is little reason to doubt him. But unless he is prepared to go
much further than anyone has publicly contemplated in pressuring
Israel, his peace initiative has negligible chances of success.

For months the focus has been on Obama's demand that Israel agree to a
complete cessation of settlement construction, including the subterfuge
called "natural growth." It was during a similar "freeze" in the early
1990s that Israel built thousands of settler housing units on occupied
land. Arab optimism and Israeli anxiety were amplified as Obama and his
Middle East Envoy George Mitchell said repeatedly that this time they
wanted a total halt.

Yet the firmness shows signs of erosion. Israeli press reports spoke of
a "compromise" taking shape in which Israel would be allowed to
complete thousands of already planned housing units. Although those
reports were denied by the United States, several participants in the
White House meeting said Obama alluded to an unspecified compromise in
the works.

Anything short of a complete cessation of settlement construction will
mark an achievement for Israel; what is important is not the number of
units the United States may approve, but the principle that this
administration, like its predecessors, will license Israel's illegal
colonization. Once that principle is established, Israel may present
more faits accomplis and build at will.

And even if Israel does agree to a verifiable cessation, the US has structured the matter as a quid pro quo
in which Israel is not required to do anything without receiving a
reward. The president has appealed to Arab states to normalize ties
with Israel if it freezes settlements, including opening diplomatic
missions and allowing overflights by El Al aircraft (recall that when
en route to bomb Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981, Israeli warplanes
reportedly falsely identified themselves as commercial aviation). Given
how little leverage the Arab side has, it would be totally disarmed if
it conceded any such gestures in exchange for so little.

Israel's settlements violate numerous UN Security Council resolutions
and the Fourth Geneva Convention. It should no more be rewarded for
ending settlement construction than Iraq should have been rewarded for
withdrawing from Kuwait after Iraq invaded in 1990. While today
US-occupied, war-torn Iraq is still paying Kuwait billions of dollars
annually in compensation for a seven-month long occupation that ended
almost two decades ago, the US is offering Israel prizes not for ending
a 42-year-old occupation but merely for ceasing to commit some crimes.

This can hardly be described as anything other than a net gain for
Israel, especially since the settlement project is reaching its natural
conclusion. There are already 500,000 settlers in the West Bank, who
with their infrastructure consume more than 42 percent of the land.
Nothing Obama has ever said indicates he will deviate from his
predecessors' policy of recognizing these facts and demanding that
Palestinians agree to let Israel keep settlements already built.

While all the attention is focused on the freeze, Israel maintains its
siege of Gaza -- despite Obama's calls to loosen it -- and continues to
build the West Bank wall five years after the International Court of
Justice ordered it torn down. The United States itself continues to
undermine chances for intra-Palestinian reconciliation, and therefore
credible negotiations, by fueling the smoldering civil war between
US-backed Palestinian militias on the one hand and resistance factions
led by Hamas on the other.

On the outside Israelis may be crying about US "pressure" but on the inside they must be quietly smiling.

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