Israel’s Election/ Obama and Israel

Jan 31, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

January 31, 2009
Number 01/09 #10

With Israel scheduled to vote in less than two weeks, this Update features some background on the state of the developing election campaign,  Further, it provides analysis of an issue which is playing a major role in the campaign – a debate about how the next Israeli prime minister will relate to the Administration of new US President Barack Obama.

First up, there is a backgrounder from the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), looking at the issues, demographics, and influences that seem to be shaping this election. The backgrounder makes it clear that this is very much a post-ideological election, where personalities appear more important than the left-right splits which have dominated most past Israeli election campaigns. The backgrounder also has some good comment on the current and historical role of Israel’s ethnic diversity in shaping politics. For all the history and social context you need to understand the current campaign, CLICK HERE. The latest Israeli opinion polls showing the lead of the frontrunner, Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud, narrowing amid a still heavily undecided voter base, are described here.

Next up, Israeli journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner discusses an issue which has featured prominently in the contest between Netanyahu and his Kadima and Labor rivals, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak – the question of maintaining good relations with Washington under President Obama. As Rosner shows, Kadima and Labor are arguing that Netanyahu would be unable to do this. Rosner argues that this is not necessarily true, but that it will depend in part on Netanyahu’s coalition if he wins, and this will in turn depend on the state of Kadima and Labor after the election. For all of Rosner’s argument, CLICK HERE. More on these Obama-Netanyahu  debates in the Israeli election are here and here. Netanyahu partly attempts to answer his critics on this score in a Jerusalem Post Op/ed and an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Finally, Washington insider and analyst Steve Rosen looks at one issue likely to come up between Washington and Jerusalem no matter who is Israel’s next prime minister – West Bank settlement and demands for a “freeze” on construction in them. As Rosen points out, Israeli governments, no matter what their stripe, tend to see this as more complex than simply a demand to comply with a freeze or not – involving issues such as  Jerusalem, major settlement blocs it is expected Israel will retain in return for land swaps, and what Israelis call “vertical growth”, which involves no outward expansion of a settlements built-up area. Rosen points out the history of the US showing some understanding of the Israeli stance on all three issues, and argues that if Obama continues this, a settlement freeze is possible, but otherwise, an impasse is likely to result. For his complete analysis, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

  • A report in Canada’s Globe and Mail which shows that the single incident for which Israel probably suffered the most criticism during the recent Gaza conflict, the supposed shelling of a UN school at Jabalya leaving more than 40 people dead, actually did not involve any Israeli fire hitting the school, nor any deaths of people in the school grounds or buildings.
  • Comment on these revelations from Britain’s Melanie Philips and Australia’s own Andrew Bolt.
  • As Bolt and Philips point out, John Ging, the head of UNWRA (the UN body responsible for Palestinian refugees), admits no Israeli shell struck the school and says he has always said this, but seems to have at least implied the opposite previously. An important report on UNWRA, pointing out both its shortcomings and proposing reforms, comes from its former legal advisor, James G. Lindsay, and is available as a pdf here.
  • Concerning new US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, both top Middle East academic Martin Kramer and Marty Peretz, academic and publisher of the New Republic, approve. A further pro and con on Mitchell’s appointment from two American Jewish leaders was published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
  • Some interesting analysis of the limited utility of Mitchell’s experience in Northern Ireland to his new role comes from author Henry Macdonald, who has written a book on the Northern Ireland negotiations, and  British journalist Alex Massie, who has also done much reporting on the subject. Plus, there is even some criticism of Mitchell’s role in an inquiry into drug use in American baseball.
  • Law professor David Bernstein says that many of the claims about Israel supposedly “violating international law” are not legal at all, but amount to shorthand for “engaging in military action that I don’t approve of.” 


BICOM FOCUS, 29/01/2009

Key Points

  • The post-1967 ideological split in Israeli politics has classically been about whether and how to give up territory in return for peace.
  • The collapse of the peace process in 2000 and the outbreak of the Second Intifada forced both left-wing and right-wing ideologues to question their positions.
  • The ‘mainstream’ parties are seeking to attract votes from a hazy centre ground. They are playing down distinct ideological positions, and campaigning on the relative strengths of their leaders. If the leaders succeed in avoiding taking clear ideological stances, the options for coalition building after the election will be broad.
  • There have always been parties in the system representing the narrow interests of specific sectors of society. Israel’s electoral system has given them a powerful role in government formation.

Introduction: The classic left-right split in Israel

In Israel, a family friend is introduced to a newborn baby for the first time. He asks with a smile, ‘well what is he, left-wing or right-wing?’ It’s a joke that hints at how much politics defines identity in Israel, but nowadays it’s a little out of date. The old divisions of left and right can still be discerned, but in this election, all the major parties are attempting to steer away from firm ideological positions to a murky region on the electoral map called ‘the centre’.

When Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War, the major political blocs orientated themselves around the question of whether and how to give up captured territory in return for peace. The right-wing bloc, which eventually coalesced around a grouping called the Likud, wanted to keep the captured territory. The left-wing bloc, which coalesced to form Labour, was broadly more supportive of the principle of making territorial compromises for peace with Israel’s Arab neighbours.

The emergence and disappearance of smaller parties and factions within and outside the main blocs has always been a common occurrence in Israeli politics, but this left-right split still defined the political map for many years. Yet the divide was never a clear-cut division between doves and hawks. The left-wing camp also held strong roots within the IDF and boasted an unwavering commitment to the nation’s defence. And it was a right-wing government under Likud leader Menachem Begin which gave up the Sinai Peninsula in return for peace with Egypt.

It was the fate of the emotionally and strategically more sensitive West Bank, every mile of which is steeped in Jewish history, that was the most potent source of division. As well as defining left and right for the mainstream, secular, Zionist camp, this became an issue of central importance for modern national-religious (‘knitted kippa’) camp, as well. National-religious parties were often partners in coalition with left-wing governments up until the late 1970s. But since then, the national-religious camp has become increasingly associated with the settler movement in the West Bank, making them unlikely partners in a left-leaning government.

The ethnic dimension

Whilst Israeli politics have this classic left-right division, it was never a single dividing line that defined the electorate as in Britain. Since the founding of the state in 1948, Israeli society has been built up like a layer cake, with different ethnic and religious strata. The ingredients of the cake have been constantly changing, as the country absorbed immigrants from different parts of the world. Hundreds of thousands of Ashkenazi European Jews flocked to Palestine prior to World War II; Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern origin came in similarly large numbers after Israel’s establishment. Close to one million Jews arrived from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. In addition, Israel’s diverse population of Arab and other minority citizens have been a constant part of the picture.

There have, as a result, always been groups within Israeli society for whom their own sector’s interests have been more important than the big ideological issues of land and peace. That is why, since the founding of the state in 1948, there have been parties in the Knesset representing Arabs and ultra-orthodox (‘black-hat’ or ‘haredi’) Jews.  In the early 1980s, the Shas Party was formed to add to this mix a party representing religious Jews of Middle Eastern background. After the massive influx of nearly one million Jews from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, a succession of parties formed to represent their interests, most recently the ‘Yisrael Beiteinu’ (Israel is our Home) Party. Because of Israel’s directly proportional election system, these smaller parties representing sectoral interests have succeeded in gaining a significant share of the 120 Knesset seats, and have been able to gain concessions for their voters in return for supporting the major parties in government. The sector-based parties have not refrained from taking positions on the peace-security issues, but their positions have tended to be more flexible.

Camp David 2000, the Second Intifada and the shattering of the ideological divide

In the 15 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the picture has changed considerably. When Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres shook Yasser Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn and recognised the PLO, they set in motion the process towards Palestinian self-determination. It started with handing over control of Palestinian population centres in Gaza and the West Bank to a newly formed Palestinian Authority. Even the government of Binyamin Netanyahu which came to power after Rabin’s assassination did not stall this process completely, signing the Wye River agreement which advanced the redeployment of Israeli forces from Palestinian population centres in 1998. The process culminated when Ehud Barak, at the head of a left-wing government, accepted the Clinton proposals for Israel to give up control of most of the West Bank and Gaza in order to create an independent Palestinian state. Barak’s offer was seen as a moment of truth for the ideological question that had divided Israel for decades: could and should the territories be traded for peace?

When Arafat rejected the proposal and launched the Second Intifada – a conflict which, by the time of Arafat’s death in 2004, had led to 1,000 Israeli and 3,000 Palestinian deaths – he badly damaged the credibility of the peace camp in Israel. But the Second Intifada also made clear that it was not feasible for Israel to maintain its security whilst continuing to rule over the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank. The operation was too costly for Israel, and the growing Palestinian-Arab population in Israel and the territories looked as though it could overtake Israel’s Jewish population in the future, endangering Israel’s legitimacy as a democratic state with a Jewish majority.

Sharon’s revolution

The personal transformation of prime minister Ariel Sharon in the period of his premiership from 2001 to 2005 symbolised the rupture that had taken place and gave it form in the shape of a new policy and a new party. Having previously been a prominent advocate of settlement building and maintaining territory for Israel’s protection, Sharon recognised that the ‘Greater Israel’ dream of controlling perpetually all the territories was no longer the way to keep Israel secure. He synthesised the two lessons of the post Camp David years: that there was no Palestinian partner and that Israel could no longer maintain control over the Palestinian people, and took two practical steps. He set in motion the building of a security fence that would divide Israel from the West Bank, keeping most of the settlers in the major settlement blocs close to the Green Line on the Israeli side, and he withdrew all Israeli settlers from Gaza and part of the northern West Bank. This split the Israeli right into two camps, those who accepted Sharon’s prognosis and those who did not. Sharon’s followers, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni the most prominent among them, joined Sharon in the formation of the Kadima Party. Whilst Sharon was personally incapacitated prior to the 2006 election, the party was elected with a policy of continuing the process of unilateral withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank, whilst holding onto the major settlement blocs close to the Green Line.

They never got the chance to implement the plan. Unilateral withdrawal was discredited by the Second Lebanon War and the rise to power of Hamas in the territories, especially in Gaza. Whilst the underlying assumption remains that the Greater Israel project had run its course, the distinctive Kadima commitment to further unilateral withdrawals has withered. In the past, centrist parties in Israel have not endured.

Lack of clear policy options puts focus on personality

In the current electoral context, with the Israeli electorate fatigued by the conflict and the failures of the past, the large parties with a national agenda are avoiding being branded as left-wing or right-wing. The major parties are trying to attract the votes of the centre ground, and are being led by the polls as to how to form their messages. Whilst the centre is not fixed, a glance at some recent opinion polling gives some clues as to its general location. According to a survey published in December by researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 69% of Israelis support and 28% oppose mutual recognition of Israel as the state for the Jewish people and Palestine as the state for the Palestinian people as part of a permanent status agreement.[1] But a survey commissioned by the Geneva Initiative in July found that 34% believe and 62% do not believe a permanent status agreement can be reached with the Palestinians to end the conflict.[2]

As a result, Israel’s main political parties are showing commitment to the peace process, but are avoiding being too committal about the final conclusion. Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu has talked about continuing peace talks with the Palestinians and the importance of Palestinian economic development, and promises no new settlements. He also did everything he could to prevent far-right candidates from dominating the Likud Party list. Meanwhile, Labour leader Ehud Barak and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who are more clearly associated with the peace process and the belief in territorial concessions, are guarded about their position on the peace process, but play up their commitment to Israeli security. Ehud Barak has worked particularly hard at this as defence minister in the last two years. Had the Annapolis process reached some form of conclusion, and had the Palestinians been united behind a leadership committed to the peace process, then the dynamic of the election might have been very different. The public could have found themselves voting in an election defined by a deal with the Palestinians which was on the table. But with the Palestinians divided and the conditions for an agreement far from ripe, the major leaders are hedging.

The most striking evidence of the fact that the main parties are downplaying any distinctive ideological ground is the extent to which they are campaigning first and foremost on the personal characteristics of their leaders. Whilst campaigning stopped almost completely during Operation Cast Lead, the parties are all now gearing up for a final push. Tzipi Livni is campaigning on her reputation for honesty, and is consciously taking a leaf out of the Obama campaign’s ‘Change’ agenda with posters proclaiming ‘Tzipi Livni: A different kind of leader’. Ehud Barak made extraordinary efforts to overcome his reputation for lack of warmth with a series of posters proclaiming ‘He’s not nice/likable/a buddy/trendy; he’s a leader’, and is now building on his credibility with the defence portfolio with the slogan ‘Barak: At the moment of truth’. Netanyahu began with the slogan ‘Because of the need to manage the state’, and is now campaigning on the line ‘Strong on security; strong on the economy’. Even the Meretz Party, firmly positioned in an ideological slot to the left of Labour, have been in on the act, proclaiming ‘Jumas [the nickname of their leader Haim Oron] – you thought we didn’t have any more leaders like that’.

Another consequence of the lack of big divisive issues dominating the agenda is that space is created for more controversial figures to grab the agenda with deliberately provocative positions. Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Russian immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu Party, for example, has a campaign focusing on the question of loyalty of Arab political parties to the state. In so doing he is trying to reach beyond his Russian support base and grab disaffected voters from other sections of the electorate.


Issues of peace and security are deeply ingrained in Israeli political culture and will again play a major part in this election. But the relative importance of ideological distinctions has declined in Israeli politics. This is because of the discrediting of firm ideological stances on both the left and the right of the spectrum. The discrediting of big ideas in Israeli politics and the lack of clear policy agendas mean that the promotion of personalities has dominated the campaign so far. As the campaign proceeds, party leaders may find it harder to avoid being more explicit about their stances on Israel’s key diplomatic challenges, but for now they want to win the trust of the public for their competence and abilities as individuals.

The lack of clear blue water between the parties on policy will also affect the formation of the government after the election. The pragmatism of the leaders, and their unwillingness to fix themselves to clear policy positions, will create greater flexibility in forming a coalition, meaning a wide range of government compositions could be possible once the results are known. The role of the sector-based parties is likely to be as prominent as ever in making up the numbers for a majority coalition. As a result, the characteristics and policies of the next Israeli government may not be known until the coalition formation process is complete, anything up to two months after the election.

[1] Poll conducted jointly by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, between November 26 and December 5, 2008. Full results can be seen here.

[2] Poll conducted by Marketwatch commissioned by the Geneva Initiative; published 13 August, 2008

*Please visit our new BICOM Israeli Elections Centre on our website for analysis, Israeli opinion polls, facts & figures and more. You can find it by clicking on http://www.bicom.org.uk/news/elections.

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Shmuel Rosner

Commentary “Contentions” blog -01.25.2009 – 3:18 PM

As I wrote here two months ago, the numerous predictions about the future relationship between a Netanyahu Israeli government and the new Obama administration tended to suffer from extensive partisanship:

In essence, what Israelis (and Americans) opposed to Netanyahu want is for Obama to help Livni get elected. Namely by making Israelis wary about having a Prime Minister who wouldn’t be able to get along with the next U.S. administration. But by inviting intervention, they assume a risk: If Netanyahu is elected anyway, this will complicate relations between Netanyahu and Obama even more.

Sure enough, Kadima’s (lagging in the polls far behind Netanyahu’s Likud) has this week  adopted the predictable “Netanyahu will clash with Obama” line. And the chatter over Bibi’s ability to handle delicate relations with the Obama team is probably going to take over the campaign in the coming week:

According to Livni, “Obama’s policy could be an opportunity for Israel. He wants to be involved and solve the conflict. His pressure will be directed at those who refuse this process, and Israel must choose whether it’s on the side advancing a peace process or on the side of those refusing it, otherwise there will be an inevitable rift with the United States here.”

It’s the perfect time for a last minute attempt to stop Netanyahu from winning. Later in the week, Israel expects the first visit of the new special envoy, George Mitchell, and which sparks the question: did the new administration decided to send him here in the hope that it will help both Livni and Labor’s Ehud Barak? The Obama people are not naïve, and could have assumed that Mitchell’s visit two weeks before the election might become a political football.

In any event, the “Obibi” battle has begun and is now the center-left’s last best hope. Using quotes dug from books and articles by Dennis Ross — senior advisor to Obama and special envoy from the nineties — both Kadima and Likud are trying to make their points about the Obama/Bibi duo:

Both parties intend to feature quotes from Ross in their campaigns to paint a picture of how Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu would get along with new US President Barack Obama should Netanyahu return to the Prime Minister’s Office… “Bibi rarely seemed to know how to act on his ideas – how to present them, to whom, and even when to do so,” Ross wrote about Netanyahu in a quote from his book, The Missing Peace, that was distributed by Kadima. “Translating an idea into action seemed beyond his grasp. It was not lack of intelligence… it was the lack of judgment… but there was something more: Often he would come up with ideas simply to get himself out of a jam.”… The Likud, by contrast, focused on Ross quotes that were policy-oriented and not personal. They distributed interviews with Ross and articles he wrote in which he regretted not insisting upon reciprocity with the Palestinians as Netanyahu had advised him.

As Yossi Verter writes today, Netanyahu’s problem is that he can’t erase the past. His relations with the Clinton administration, when he was Prime Minister between 1996-1999, were not good. But does this necessarily mean that the 2009 Netanyahu will not get along with Obama? The answer is no — not if Netanyahu can get what he wants:

Netanyahu understands this very well. He knows this is his last chance. He does not want to leave the stage humiliated and outcast, as he did 10 years ago. So his strategic goal, if he is elected, is to add Labor and Kadima or either one to his party, as an anti-Obama flak jacket.

And truth is, Netanyahu wants Labor or Kadima or both in his coalition for many reasons — among them getting help with Israel’s image abroad (remember Shimon Peres’s role in the Ariel Sharon government?). He also wants them to join because, like Obama, he understands the power of governing from the center. The question, though, will not be whether Netanyahu invites Labor and Kadima to join him. He will — and he will be willing to pay a heavy political price for it. The question is whether the two (or one of them) will accept the invitation.

 Kadima, if defeated, will be a party in total disarray. Labor’s Barak supposedly wants to remain as Defense Minister, but the Young (relatively speaking) Turks of the Labor Party still say that they will not let the party join a “Netanyahu government.” Thus. somewhat ironically, while both Labor and Kadima warn of possible friction between Israel and the Obama administration, one of the keys with which to avoid such friction will be in their hands.

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Obama and a Settlements Freeze

by Steven J. Rosen

MEF POLICY FORUM, January 28, 2009

Nothing has more potential to undermine the relationship between the United States and Israel than the issue of settlements. Mideast Peace Envoy George Mitchell said in 2003, “Opposition to the government of Israel’s policies and practices regarding settlements…has been consistent through the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations; just as consistent has been the continued settlement activity by the Israeli government.”[1] If the Obama team is not able to come to a workable set of understandings with the Government of Israel on this issue, both the peace process and the United States-Israel relationship will suffer. During the George H. W. Bush administration, particularly from 1990-92, tensions over settlements so severely strained ties between Israel and its American ally, that direct communication between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Israel ground to a halt. If not managed very carefully by both sides, the settlement issue could again become a point of friction leading to diplomatic paralysis.[2]

It is safe to predict that the Obama administration will call for a settlement “freeze.” George Mitchell has been associated with the freeze concept since the Commission he headed in 2001 concluded that “Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.” The Bush Administration signed on to the idea in 2003, when it joined with the E.U., Russia, and the Secretary General of the U.N. to promulgate the “Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” The Roadmap requires, in Phase I, that, “Consistent with the Mitchell Report, the Government of Israel freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).”[3] The Obama Administration’s commitment to the Roadmap was reaffirmed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her confirmation hearing, and no doubt she means to include in this the call for a settlement freeze.[4]

The idea of a freeze on settlements, including natural growth, seems eminently sensible to many Americans. A majority in this country think that settlements are an obstacle to peace, and that their continued expansion undermines the confidence of the Palestinians by creating an impression of “creeping annexation” of the West Bank by Israel. If their complete removal must be postponed until there is a final status agreement, a freeze on growth of settlements should be an interim step, a “confidence-building measure” to help negotiations succeed. And the prevailing American view of a settlement freeze is simple: no new settlements, no geographic expansion of existing settlements, and no more construction in settlements. Basically, no anything beyond what already exists.

A majority of the public in Israel, and the leaders of all three of the largest political parties (Kadima, Labor, and Likud), have at times expressed a willingness to agree to a settlement “freeze” as part of a package of confidence building measures undertaken by both sides, depending on what is meant by the term “freeze”. All the major parties have indicated that they can accept a freeze on the establishment of new settlements, on further expropriation of land for existing settlements, and on the appropriation of government funds for expansion of settlements beyond agreed limits.

But, with regard to a freeze on natural growth in the settlement communities that already exist, Israeli governments insist on three limiting principles which are regarded as fundamental. These principles have had various degrees of acceptance by different figures in the United States government, but they are seldom discussed in the public debate. The real heart of the Obama team’s policy toward settlements, will be determined by how it responds to these three principles that Israelis consider essential.

First, Jewish communities in Jerusalem cannot be put in the same basket as settlements in the West Bank. No major party in Israel, and no significant part of the public, is willing to count as “settlements” to be “frozen,” the Jewish neighborhoods that fall within the juridical boundaries of Jerusalem that were recorded in the “Basic Law–Jerusalem” in 1980, regardless of whether they are on land that was under Jordanian rule before 1967 or not.[5] To Israelis, Jewish neighborhoods in the nation’s capital are not “settlements” subject to negotiation and possible compromise. They are an integral part of the sovereign state of Israel. Even among those who might be willing to relinquish Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement (perhaps half the Israeli public), there is no support at all for sacrificing or impeding the Jewish communities inside the city limits.

Outside Israel, the “Basic Law—Jerusalem” has no standing. In fact, the Israeli statute was repudiated by the U.N. Security Council in Resolution 478 (1980) which described it as “Null and void…a violation of international law.”[6] The Arab League, including the Palestinian Authority, and many other countries following their example, consider East Jerusalem to be “occupied territory” and Jewish communities there to be “settlements.” The United States does not treat East Jerusalem as occupied territory, but neither has it recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the area. As a practical matter, the State Department does not tabulate Israeli communities within Jerusalem as part of its “settlements” statistics. Tacitly the U.S. has given a degree of recognition to the distinction between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Obama Administration will have to go one step further by formally excluding East Jerusalem communities from a “settlement freeze,” if it hopes to make any progress toward a resolution.

Second, with regard to settlements in the “West Bank,” excluding East Jerusalem, the Government of Israel and the Israeli public draw a further distinction. Israel puts in a special category what became known in the Oslo talks as the “settlement blocs.” These are mostly bedroom suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that were given a unique status in the Oslo negotiations, separate from the “outlying” settlements deeper in the interior of the West Bank. At the Camp David peace talks in July 2000, President Clinton proposed, and Yasser Arafat accepted, that these “settlement blocs,” comprising only 5% of the land of the West Bank but including about 80% of the settlers, would come under Israeli sovereignty, provided also that there would be a “swap” of land given by Israel from its own pre-1967 territory to compensate for the perceived Palestinian sacrifice. Settlements outside the blocs would be relinquished by Israel, but those inside the blocs would remain Israeli.

While the understandings reached at Camp David had no legal standing after the negotiations collapsed in 2001, the concept of agreed settlement blocs has become one of the basic assumptions in subsequent Israeli thinking about a two-state solution. Israel sought some recognition from the Bush Administration that it too would recognize such distinctions, and Israeli officials believe they got that recognition in 2004. In an exchange of letters on April 14, 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon acknowledged “responsibilities facing the State of Israel” under the Roadmap, including “limitations on the growth of settlements.” President George W. Bush acknowledged in response that, “As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders… In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949…It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”[7]

Israel understands this to mean that, since this Executive Agreement, settlements in the blocs that would remain part of sovereign Israel in a future negotiation, will be treated differently by the United States than settlements outside the blocs agreed at Camp David, even before a future agreement is reached. The Government of Israel believes it has a commitment from the United States to accept that a “freeze on natural growth” need not apply to settlements inside these blocs, provided that the construction remains within the territorial limits understood at Camp David. Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, said in April 2008. “It was clear from day one to Abbas, Rice and Bush that construction would continue in population concentrations — the areas mentioned in Bush’s 2004 letter. I say this again today: Beitar Illit will be built, Gush Etzion will be built; there will be construction in Pisgat Ze’ev and in the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. It’s clear that these areas will remain under Israeli control in any future settlement.”[8]

The Obama Administration has decided that it will accept the Bush commitment of April 14, 2004, but not yet whether it will accept these implications of the agreement. If it does not, it will be at odds not only with the Likud, but also with Kadima and Labor. It is difficult to imagine any Government of Israel agreeing, for example, to freeze all construction and natural growth inside a community like Ma’ale Adumim, a huge bedroom suburb of Jerusalem ten minutes away, with a population of 33,000, established by a Labor government more than thirty years ago.

The third distinction that Israelis make about a settlement freeze, on which the Obama team will need to decide its position, is about the kind of “freeze on natural gowth” that is to be imposed on the settlements that are outside the blocs and outside East Jerusalem. The Sharon and Olmert governments were willing to ban outward geographic expansion of these established settlements, but they reserved the right to continue what Shimon Peres dubbed “vertical growth,” meaning upward or infill expansion inside the existing “construction line” of established houses. If outward horizontal expansion affects the Palestinians and gives the impression of “creeping annexation”, vertical growth has much less impact. As a condition for an agreement to curtail “natural growth,” Israel wants to retain the freedom to permit communities to add a room or build between existing houses, as long as there is no outward expansion of the settlement.

Israel believes it received a commitment from the Bush Administration to accept such “vertical” growth inside the construction line of each settlement. In a letter from Sharon’s top aide, Dov Weissglas, to National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice in June 2003, Weissglas stated that there were “understandings reached between Israel and the U.S. regarding the Jewish settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza: … No new towns will be built, and construction will be frozen in the existing towns, except for building within the existing building lines, as opposed to the municipal border.”[9] Prime Minister Ariel Sharon implied such agreement publicly in his speech at the Herzliya Conference on December 18, 2003[10]: “Israel will meet all its obligations with regard to construction in the settlements. There will be no construction beyond the existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, no special economic incentives and no construction of new settlements.”

A few months later, on April 18, 2004, Sharon’s aide Dov Weissglas asserted, in another letter to Rice, “the following understanding, which had been reached between us: 1. Restrictions on settlement growth: within the agreed principles of settlement activities, an effort will be made in the next few days to have a better definition of the construction line of settlements in Judea & Samaria. An Israeli team, in conjunction with Ambassador Kurtzer, will review aerial photos of settlements and will jointly define the construction
line of each of the settlements.”[11]

The Government of Israel quickly acted to enforce the distinction. On August 5, 2004, a settler newspaper reported that, “The Defense Ministry has completed a large-scale project to mark the existing built-up borders of all the Jewish communities and towns in Judea and Samaria – and no further construction will be allowed beyond them. Yediot Aharonot reports today that aerial photos will be sent to the United States, which will monitor every building aberration. Though the towns will be allowed to appeal the decision, every building beyond the marked borders could be subject to immediate demolition. The above program is in accordance with the commitment Prime Minister Sharon gave U.S. President George Bush three months ago.”[12]

The Bush Administration was reluctant to acknowledge publicly that it had arrived at such an understanding with the Government of Israel, but there were several public indications that it had. The New York Times’ Steve Weisman reported on August 21, 2004, “The Bush administration…has modified its policy and signaled approval of growth in at least some Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, American and Israeli officials say…The administration now supports construction of new apartments in areas already built up in some settlements, as long as the expansion does not extend outward…according to the officials.”[13] The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler reported on October 30, 2004 that, “during an interview with Egyptian television [in September 2004], Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage mused openly about a definition of natural growth. ‘If you have settlements that already exist and you put more people into them but don’t expand the physical, sort of, the area — that might be one thing,’ he said. ‘But if the physical area expands and encroaches, and it takes more of Palestinian land, well, this is another.'” The Post added that “a senior administration official told reporters at a briefing that the purpose of a settlement freeze is to make sure additional settlers would not impede Palestinian life or prevent the formation of a viable Palestinian state. It makes no difference, he said, if the Israelis add another house within a block of existing homes.” And the Post added that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the administration was negotiating with Israel over whether its settlements in the West Bank can grow within existing settlement boundaries.[14]

While the Administration’s background statements and the absence of denials implied that the Israeli assertions that there was an agreement were accurate, the Administration never quite said so in a clear way. But no denial was issued after August 21, 2004, when a front page story in the New York Times story appeared under the headline “U.S. Now Said to Support Growth for Some West Bank Settlements”, claiming loudly that such an agreement existed. Nor was there any correction after the Guardian published an article headlined, “Secret US Deal Wrecks Road Map for Peace” on August 27, 2004, reporting that “The United States was accused this week by Palestinian leaders of …giving its covert support to Israel’s expansion of controversial settlements in the West Bank. American officials are privately admitting they have…given Jerusalem tacit permission to build thousands of new homes on the disputed land…A European diplomat said this week, ‘The US has tacitly agreed that [Israel’s] position has validity and has shown that limited building is permissible.'”[15]

There were some carefully parsed partial denials nearly four years later, when Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post revisited the issue on April 24, 2008. But Kessler also reported an on-the-record confirmation from Daniel Kurtzer, then the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, who said he had argued at the time against accepting the April 2004 Weissglas letter that asserted there was a U.S.-Israel understanding on the construction line concept. Kurtzer told the Post, “I thought it was a really bad idea. It would legitimize the settlements.” Kurtzer said that, in the end, the White House did not send the team to define the construction lines, “when it became clear it would not be easy to do.”[16] It appears that, as an alternative, the Israeli Ministry of Defense provided the United States with aerial photographs marking the construction line of each settlement (reported by Yediot Aharonot on August 5, 2004.)

The Obama team may find it difficult to obtain a clear and consistent record of these American-Israeli understandings about the construction line principle, because many of the commitments were expressed orally rather than in writing, in conversations with select White House officials. Apparently these were not reported to other officials of the Bush Administration. Sharon’s representative, Dov Weissglas told the Washington Post’s Kessler in 2008, that in April 2004 he had negotiated a “verbal understanding” with deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, and then Rice and Sharon approved the deal. He told the Post, “I do not recall that we had any kind of written formulation,” except his own letters back to Rice stating that the agreements existed.

Those who want to drive a wedge between Barack Obama and the next Prime Minister of Israel know that settlements could become the “third rail” of their relationship. Settlements did not cause the conflict in Gaza, and the removal of settlements there certainly was not a cure. When Ariel Sharon took every last settler out of Gaza four years ago, it did not end the Hamas attacks. The withdrawal of the settlers was instead followed by a sevenfold increase in Kassam rockets fired into Israeli communities. Obama is going to hear a lot of assertions that pulling the Israeli settlements out of the West Bank will bring peace. If nothing is done about the real cause of the violence—the networks of Palestinian extremists supported by Iran—further Israel withdrawal could be followed by a still greater and more dangerous escalation of violence, the opposite of peace. Settlements are not the cause of the violence, and their removal is not the cure.

An interim settlements freeze that meets the essential objectives of the Roadmap can be achieved. A carefully nuanced final resolution of the settlement issue can be achieve in the final status negotiations. To accomplish these objectives, the Obama team will have to understand and respect the fundamental concepts and working arrangements that Israelis consider to be critical to their interests. A simplistic, absolutist mindset about settlements will certainly lead to an impasse.

Steven J. Rosen is director of the Middle East Forum’s Obama Mideast Monitor, and former Director of Foreign Policy Issues for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

[1] http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2003/comm-mitchell-speech.html
[2] http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CEFDB1031F934A25752C0A964958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all
[3] http://www.un.org/media/main/roadmap122002.html
[4] http://www.meforum.org/blog/obama-mideast-monitor/2009/01/clinton-today-no-decision-on-mideast-peace.html
[5] http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/MFAArchive/1980_1989/Basic+Law-+Jerusalem-+Capital+of+Israel.htm
[6] http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/NR0/399/71/IMG/NR039971.pdf?OpenElement
[7] http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Reference+Documents/Exchange+of+letters+Sharon-Bush+14-Apr-2004.htm
[8] Quoted in Washington Post, April 24, 2008
[9] Quoted in Settlement Report, May-June 2004, Foundation for Middle East Peace, and in Arutz Sheva, August 5, 2004
[10] http://www.israelpr.com/sharonspeech1006.html
[11] http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Reference+Documents/Letter+Weissglas-Rice+18-Apr-2004.htm
[12] Arutz Sheva, August 5, 2004
[13] http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B06E5DF173EF932A1575BC0A9629C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=print
[14] http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A10520-2004Oct29?language=printer
[15] http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardianweekly/story/0,,1291598,00.html
[16] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/23/AR2008042303128_pf.html

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