US-Israeli disagreements on settlement “natural growth”
Jul 2, 2009 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
July 2, 2009
Number 07/09 #02
The US and Israel continue to publicly disagree about whether Israel should freeze all “natural growth” in West Bank settlements, with Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak yesterday meeting US Middle East envoy George Mitchell to discuss this issue and others. According to Barak, while there was no agreement, there was progress.
This Update looks at the prominence that is being given to this issue, and whether, in the larger scheme of the peace process, it really deserves the focus which has been devoted to it.
First up is Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, who argues that the Obama Administration has allowed its dispute with Israel on the settlement “natural growth” issue to define its Middle East policy too much. He says that the Administration’s absolutist stance is a loser for three reasons – it allows the Arab side to avoid taking any steps toward peace, it is politically unachievable with any conceivable coalition in Israel, and it is unnecessary – Arabs and Palestinians have previously accepted lesser restrictions that meet their objections to any growth of the lands that settlements occupy. He urges the US to make a compromise deal for reasonable restrictions, because the current position risks either a protracted confrontation encouraging the Arab side to believe Obama can deliver all the Israeli concessions they need without negotiations or else what will be portrayed as a cave-in to Israel. For this full argument, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Diehl’s Washington Post colleague David Ignatius also says that even if Israel agrees to it, such a freeze will make very little difference to peace prospects, and even cites some Arab sources who have told him as much. Another detailed critique of the Obama Administration’s focus on the settlement issue comes from Barry Rubin.
Also commenting on the inordinate focus on the settlement “natural growth” issue was the Jerusalem Post, which points out that when the Quartet issued a statement on the Middle East last week, it made a number of important recommendations – but the point on settlements was the only one that made the news. The paper argues that the uncompromising US stance on this issue is placing the US in conflict with the Israeli consensus for peace which needs to be strengthened if progress is to be achieved. Moreover, it will likely only embolden the Arab side to dig in and demand more be delivered from Israel by the US government. For the paper’s complete discussion, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, as if emphasising the paper’s point about the Israel consensus, a leading figure in the main opposition Kadima party affirms it also opposes the US demand for a total prohibition on “natural growth” in all settlements.
Finally, former Israeli Ambassador to the UN and prominent academic Dore Gold has a backgrounder on the history of US attitudes toward the settlements. He looks at their growth since 1967, the attitudes of past administrations, and especially the understandings about them that were reached under the Bush administration. He also examines what past agreements say about the settlements as well as the various international law arguments about their legality – including from different US administrations. For this vital background for understanding the history behind the current disagreements over settlement “natural growth”, CLICK HERE. An argument for the legality of settlements is here. An argument for their right to exist is here.
Readers may also be interested in:
- There has been some incomplete reporting about Israel’s decision to approve 50 apartments in Adam, just north of Jerusalem. The details and context are explained here.
- Some terminology and details on the questions of settlement “outposts”, which are viewed as illegal by the Israeli government.
- Interviews with some Palestinians who don’t want settlement construction to end – those who have jobs in this construction.
- Israeli PM Netanyahu has set out five principles for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, listed here. More on Netanyahu’s identification of himself with the Israeli mainstream following his Bar-Ilan speech comes from noted Israeli academic Efraim Inbar.
- An argument that it would be good for the relationship for President Obama to announce a visit to Israel soon.
- Noted law professor Alan Dershowitz takes on the latest examples of “lawfare” against Israel. Meanwhile, Dr. Gerald Steinberg takes on European funding of groups that engage in such lawfare.
- A New York Times profile of Israeli President Shimon Peres.
- Another run-down of the news from Iran.
End the Spat With Israel
By Jackson Diehl
Washington Post, Monday, June 29, 2009
The upheaval in Iran offers the Obama administration a host of fresh foreign policy opportunities. Not the least of them is a chance to creep away from the corner into which it has painted itself in the Arab-Israeli peace process.
President Obama began with a broad strategy of simultaneously pressing Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states to take concrete steps toward peace. By the time Iranians took to the streets, it had allowed that broad front to be narrowed to a single point: a standoff with the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu over whether “natural growth” would be allowed in Jewish settlements outside Israel’s 1967 borders.
Pressuring Israel made sense, at first. The administration correctly understood that Netanyahu, a right-winger who took office with the clear intention of indefinitely postponing any Israeli-Palestinian settlement, needed to feel some public heat from Washington to change his position — and that the show of muscle would add credibility to the administration’s demands that Arab leaders offer their own gestures. But, starting with a statement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in May, the administration made the mistake of insisting that an Israeli settlement “freeze” — a term the past three administrations agreed to define loosely — must mean a total stop to all construction in the West Bank and even East Jerusalem.
This absolutist position is a loser for three reasons. First, it has allowed Palestinian and Arab leaders to withhold the steps they were asked for; they claim to be waiting for the settlement “freeze” even as they quietly savor a rare public battle between Israel and the United States. Second, the administration’s objective — whatever its merits — is unobtainable. No Israeli government has ever agreed to an unconditional freeze, and no coalition could be assembled from the current parliament to impose one.
Finally, the extraction of a freeze from Netanyahu is, as a practical matter, unnecessary. While further settlement expansion needs to be curbed, both the Palestinian Authority and Arab governments have gone along with previous U.S.-Israeli deals by which construction was to be limited to inside the periphery of settlements near Israel — since everyone knows those areas will be annexed to Israel in a final settlement. Before the 2007 Annapolis peace conference organized by the Bush administration, Saudi Arabia and other Arab participants agreed to what one former senior official called “the Google Earth test”; if the settlements did not visibly expand, that was good enough.
Netanyahu, whose poor relations with Washington contributed to his ouster from office during a previous stint as prime minister, has been relatively quick to come around. In recent weeks he has delivered a speech in which he agreed for the first time to Palestinian statehood. In the West Bank Israel is removing military roadblocks, turning four more towns over to Palestinian security forces and taking the first steps to remove settlements it deems illegal. Meanwhile, government envoys — led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who will be in Washington today — have been offering various compromise formulas.
Curiously, though, the administration — led by the State Department — keeps raising the stakes. Clinton went out of her way on June 17 to disavow any agreements between the second Bush administration and Israel over “natural growth” in some settlements. In a press briefing last Monday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly responded to a question by saying the administration opposed new construction in all areas “across the [green] line” in Jerusalem — a definition that would prohibit Israeli building in such areas as the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
The result of such posturing is that the administration now faces a choice between a protracted confrontation with Israel — an odd adventure given the pressing challenges from Iran and in Iraq, not to mention the disarray of the Palestinian camp — or a compromise, which might make Obama look weak and provide Arab states further cause to refuse cooperation. The White House, I’m told, still hopes Netanyahu will accept a construction moratorium, with a time limit and perhaps a waiver for some buildings under construction. But at this point some damage is probably unavoidable: If Barak and Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell agree on any formula short of that spelled out by Clinton and her spokesman, Arab media will trumpet it as an Obama cave-in.
The best course nevertheless lies in striking a quick deal with the left-leaning Barak this week under cover of the tumult in Tehran. The administration could then return to doing what it intended to do all along: press Palestinians as well as Israelis, friendly Arab governments and not-so-friendly Iranian clients such as Syria to take tangible steps toward a regional settlement. Such movement would be the perfect complement to the cause of change in Iran; how foolish it would be to squander it over a handful of Israeli apartment houses.
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Editorial: What a settlement freeze would do
THE JERUSALEM POST, Jun. 29, 2009
Search through the 1,000-word plus statement issued last Friday by the Middle East Quartet and you might be surprised by what turns up. For instance, the Quartet basically told the Palestinians that a peace deal with Israel would require them to end all other claims – implying abandonment of the “right of return.” The Quartet also reiterated that Palestinian unity required Hamas to commit “to non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations.” It even demanded the immediate release of Gilad Schalit.
Yet, predictably, it was the Quartet’s demand for a freeze on all settlement activity that dominated the news coverage.
THERE ARE signs that the international community’s full-court press against settlements, with the Obama administration in the forefront, is wearing the Netanyahu government down. The Palestinians’ position is that if settlements don’t stop, negotiations won’t start; and they define settlements broadly – as Jewish life beyond the Green Line. The Israeli government, under withering pressure from Washington, is reportedly floating the idea of a three-to-six-month settlement freeze to coax Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table.
Barack Obama might want to reflect on how his push for a freeze is being seen among mainstream Israelis – those who want a peace deal. They wonder why there is no withering campaign to pressure Abbas into insisting that a Fatah-Hamas unity government explicitly accept the Quartet’s principles. Or why ranking administration officials aren’t demanding that Abbas explain why he rejected Ehud Olmert’s unprecedented offer amounting to the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank. They are left uneasy by the administration’s parsimonious reaction to Netanyahu’s seminal Bar-Ilan speech on a two-state solution.
How can Netanyahu garner more domestic support to move vigorously against illegal outposts when Obama is essentially saying that in his eyes, Ma’aleh Adumim is an illegal outpost. It’s hard to see.
Netanyahu articulated the consensus position of the Israeli body politic: “Palestine” must be demilitarized so that we don’t wake up to find Iranian Revolutionary Guards overlooking Ben-Gurion Airport; that the Palestinian refugee issue must be addressed within the boundaries of Palestine; that, by extension, in a region which includes two dozen Muslim states, the Palestinians need to give up the “right of return” and accept Israel as the Jewish state. And that Israel cannot agree to pull back to the hard-to-defend 1949 Armistice Lines.
Settlement issues are complicated and the government’s policy often seems incoherent at best. For instance, it is retroactively legalizing 60 apartments built without approval just outside Talmon. It is also belatedly building 50 new homes in Adam to accommodate the residents of unauthorized Migron, which it wants to dismantle. In the ideal world, Netanyahu’s office should be breaking news of construction over the Green Line, and explaining it in the context of previous understandings with the US.
Would a temporary settlement freeze bring us any closer to peace? More likely, it would encourage the Palestinians to dig in their heels. Why not hold out for a permanent freeze? Or one that applied to metropolitan Jerusalem?
David Ignatius of The Washington Post recently quoted a senior Arab diplomat as telling him that a settlement freeze won’t cut it. What the Arabs demand is an imposed solution. This is basically what Obama has also been hearing from some in the ostensibly pro-Israel community in Washington, led by J Street.
WERE HE to piggy-back on the Israeli consensus, Obama could bring us closer to the two-state solution George W. Bush envisioned. To do so, however, he would need to embrace the former president’s commitments on settlement blocs and his administration’s understanding regarding settlement growth.
Remarkably, these now dovetail with the position taken by a sitting Likud premier. Netanyahu has also taken extraordinary and potentially risky steps to improve the negotiating atmosphere – a dramatic reduction in preventative IDF operations and the lifting of virtually all internal checkpoints in the West Bank.
Israel is so not interested in a confrontation with the popular American president that Obama may feel he can insist upon an across-the-board and unconditional settlement freeze. The danger, if that happened, is that support for a deal among Israelis, predicated on Netanyahu’s articulation of Bush’s vision, would decline. And the Palestinians would become even more intransigent.
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U.S. Policy on Israeli Settlements
Jersualem Issue Briefs (Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs)
Vol. 9, No. 2 9 June 2009
- The Obama administration’s tough, confrontational rhetoric on Israeli settlements raises a number of specific questions: Were Israeli settlements a violation of international law? Were Israeli settlements a violation of agreements and an obstacle to further progress in any future peace talks? Did the administration envision Israel withdrawing completely to the 1967 lines or did it accept the idea that Israel would retain part of the territories for defensible borders?
- Many observers are surprised to learn that settlement activity was not defined as a violation of the 1993 Oslo Accords or their subsequent implementation agreements. If the U.S. is now seeking to constrain Israeli settlement activity, it is essentially trying to obtain additional Israeli concessions that were not formally required according to Israel’s legal obligations under the Oslo Accords.
- President Bush’s deputy national security advisor, Elliot Abrams, wrote in the Washington Post on April 8, 2009, that the U.S. and Israel negotiated specific guidelines for settlement activity, whereby “settlement activity is not diminishing the territory of a future Palestinian entity.” If the U.S. is concerned that Israel might diminish the territory that the Palestinians will receive in the future, then the Obama team could continue with the quiet guidelines followed by the Bush administration and the Sharon government.
- Given the fact that the amount of territory taken up by the built-up areas of all the settlements in the West Bank is estimated to be 1.7 percent of the territory, the marginal increase in territory that might be affected by natural growth is infinitesimal. Moreover, since Israel unilaterally withdrew 9,000 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the argument that a settler presence will undermine a future territorial compromise has lost much of its previous force.
- The U.S. and Israel need to reach a new understanding on the settlements question. Legally and diplomatically, settlements do not represent a problem that can possibly justify putting at risk the U.S.-Israel relationship. It might be that the present tension in U.S.-Israeli relations is not over settlements, but rather over the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank that the Obama administration envisions.
- Disturbingly, on June 1, 2009, the State Department spokesman, Robert Wood, refused to answer repeated questions about whether the Obama administration viewed itself as legally bound by the April 2004 Bush letter to Sharon on defensible borders and settlement blocs. It would be better to obtain earlier clarification of that point, rather than having both countries expend their energies over an issue that may not be the real underlying source of their dispute.
In his June 4, 2009, Cairo speech, President Barack Obama continued to focus U.S. policy on Israel’s construction practices in the West Bank, which he forcefully criticized: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.” His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was no less forceful when speaking on May 27, 2009, about Obama’s stand on this issue: “He wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions.”
The Obama administration’s tough, confrontational rhetoric on Israeli settlements raises the question of whether it represents a sharp break from the policies of past administrations. Moreover, Obama’s assertion that current Israeli construction represents a violation of past agreements raises the question of which agreement he had in mind.
Israeli settlements in the territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War date back more than forty years. They began as military and agricultural outposts that were located for the most part in strategically significant areas of the West Bank which Israel planned to eventually claim. These settlements were also situated in areas from which Jews had been evicted during the 1948 War. While the U.S. did not support the settlement enterprise, its response to the settlements has varied in intensity, depending on the overall relationship between the two countries.
For example, the Carter administration abstained in the UN Security Council repeatedly in 1979 when draft resolutions came up for a vote that condemned Israeli settlement activity. Yet suddenly in March 1980, the administration initially decided to support Resolution 465 that called for “dismantling” all settlements, although later it reversed its position.
This varying response to the settlement issue also stemmed from U.S. policy on a number of specific questions raised by the establishment of Israeli settlements:
- Were Israeli settlements a violation of international law?
- Were Israeli settlements a violation of specific bilateral agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors and an obstacle to further progress in any future peace talks?
- To what extent did the administration envision Israel withdrawing completely to the 1967 lines or did it accept the idea that Israel would retain part of the territories for defensible borders and its security needs?
There were also two other conflicting considerations. For years Washington opposed settlements because it was felt that they were unilateral actions that pre-judged the outcome of future negotiations. But at the same time there was the view that constrained U.S. statements or activities against the settlements: while all administrations opposed settlement activity on policy grounds, the U.S. felt that using the UN to press Israel was inappropriate, since it was argued that Arab-Israeli differences of this nature should be resolved bilaterally between the parties themselves.
The Settlements and International Law
Before turning to the specific issue of the settlements, it is instructive to recall that Israel’s entry into the West Bank, in particular, created a number of legal dilemmas that would ultimately impinge on how the legal question of settlements was examined. Israel entered the West Bank in a war of self-defense, so that the UN Security Council did not call on Israel to withdraw from all the territory that it captured, when it adopted UN Security Council Resolution 242 in November 1967. The previous occupant in the West Bank from 1949 to 1967 had been the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, whose sovereignty in the territory the entire international community refused to recognize – except for Britain and Pakistan. Prior to 1949, the governing document for legal rights in the West Bank was the 1922 Palestine Mandate, which gave international recognition to Jewish legal rights.
U.S. officials were cognizant of these considerations. Eugene Rostow, a former dean of Yale Law School who was also Undersecretary of State in the Johnson years, would write years later that “Israel has an unassailable legal right to establish settlements in the West Bank.” He argued that Israel’s claims to the territory were “at least as good as those of Jordan.” Prof. Stephen Schwebel, who would become the State Department legal advisor and subsequently the President of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, went a step further when he wrote in 1970 that “Israel has better title in the territory of what was Palestine, including the whole of Jerusalem, than do Jordan and Egypt.” On July 29, 1977, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance stated that “it is an open question as to who has legal right to the West Bank.”
In the late 1960s, the Johnson administration was critical of Israeli settlement activity, but did not characterize the settlements as illegal. It was not until the Carter administration that the State Department Legal Advisor, Herbert Hansell, expressed the view that the settlements violated international law. The Carter policy was reversed by all of his sucssessors. Thus, President Ronald Reagan declared on February 2, 1981, that the settlements were “not illegal.” He criticized them on policy grounds, calling them “ill-advised” and “proactive.”
The question about the legality of settlements came from how various legal authorities interpret the applicability of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention relative to civilian persons in times of war. Article 49 of the convention clearly prohibits “mass forcible transfers” of protected persons from occupied territories. Later in the article, it states that “the occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” American interpretations of this article maintained that it referred to forcible deportations that were practiced by the Nazis and not to Israeli settlement activity. During the Bush (41) administration, the U.S. ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Morris Abram, explained that he had been on the U.S. staff during the Nuremberg trials and was hence familiar with the “legislative intent” behind the Fourth Geneva Convention. He stated on February 1, 1990, that it applied to forcible transfers and not to the case of Israeli settlements.
It should be added that in the Israeli legal community, charging that settlement activity could be comparable to the forcible evictions by the Nazis during the Second World War was regarded as extremely offensive. When Israel had to vote on whether it accepted the Rome Statute creating the International Criminal Court, the head of its delegation, Judge Eli Natan, explained that while it gave him great pain to vote against the creation of the court, Israel could not vote for a politicized statute that defined settlement activity among the “most heinous and serious war crimes.” For Natan, who was himself a Holocaust survivor, as well as for his team, this was a vulgar charge. The U.S. stood with Israel against these abuses in the founding document of the International Criminal Court, which implied that the State of Israel, a country made up partly by survivors of the Holocaust, was guilty of crimes on the same order of magnitude as what its perpetrators had committed.
The Settlements and Past International Agreements
Many observers are surprised to learn that settlement activity was not defined as a violation of the 1993 Oslo Accords or their subsequent implementation agreements. During the secret negotiations leading up to the signing of Oslo, Yasser Arafat instructed his negotiators to seek a “settlement freeze,” but Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres refused to agree to Arafat’s demand. Nonetheless, Arafat agreed to the Oslo Accords despite the lack of a settlement freeze. The Oslo Accords were essentially an interim arrangement; they stipulated that the issue of settlements would be addressed in permanent status negotiations. If the U.S. is subsequently seeking to constrain Israeli settlement activity, it is essentially trying to obtain additional Israeli concessions that were not formally required according to Israel’s legal obligations under the Oslo Accords.
Settlements became a far more salient issue with the release on May 4, 2001, of the report of a commission headed by Senator George Mitchell that sought to address the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 and to propose a return to negotiations. The Mitchell Report recommended that as a part of confidence-building measures between the parties, “Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.” The Bush (43) administration adopted the Mitchell Report, putting the settlement issue right in the center of U.S.-Israeli discussions.
It appeared at the time that the U.S. felt itself to be in an awkward position as an honest broker in peacemaking if Israel were to expropriate more land for settlement growth during the course of future negotiations. To address this concern, the Sharon government proposed a formula whereby Israel could continue to build within existing settlements, but only from the outer ring of construction inward in each settlement. That way, Israel could address the need for natural growth without taking more land for Israelis living in the settlements. These idea came up in discussions between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
As the Bush administration drafted its 2003 Roadmap for Peace, it decided to include the Mitchell Report’s settlement freeze – that included natural growth. Dov Weisglass, who headed Sharon’s negotiating team on the settlement issue, has explained that Sharon had serious reservations about the proposed freeze. According to Weisglass’ account in Yediot Ahronot on June 2, 2009, in order to facilitate the Israeli government’s acceptance of the Roadmap, Israel reached an understanding with the U.S. about what exactly a settlement freeze entailed. The two sides concluded:
- No new settlements would be built.
- No Palestinian land would be expropriated or otherwise seized for the purpose of settlement.
- Construction within the settlements would be confined to “the existing line of construction.”
- Public funds would not be earmarked for encouraging settlements.
Weisglass wrote a letter to U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on April 18, 2004, in which he reconfirmed what he described as the “agreed principles of settlement activity,” indicating that it was his understanding at the time that such an understanding indeed existed. He also wrote that his government undertook to remove what were known as “unauthorized outposts” – small settlement extensions that were constructed at local initiative without formal Israeli government approval.
However, the Bush administration and the Sharon government never put these understandings in writing, which has allowed the Obama administration to question their existence and validity, even if such commitments were made. Thus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told George Stephanopoulos on June 7, 2009, during a broadcast of ABC’s This Week: “Well, that was an understanding that was entered into, so far as we are told, orally. That was never made a part of the official record of the negotiations as it was passed on to our administration. No one in the Bush administration said to anyone that we can find in our administration….”
President Bush’s deputy national security advisor, Elliot Abrams, has been partially supportive of Weisglass’ claim. He wrote in the Washington Post on April 8, 2009, that the U.S. and Israel negotiated specific guidelines for settlement activity, but they were never “formally adopted.” On its part, Israel nonetheless felt that it had committed itself, despite the lack of any signed agreement, so that it largely adhered to those guidelines for over five years. According to Abrams, the formula succeeded in creating a situation whereby “settlement activity is not diminishing the territory of a future Palestinian entity.”
The Settlements and Israel’s Ultimate Borders
Prior to 1977, U.S. criticism of Israeli settlement activity was largely muted. During that period, much of this activity seemed to be confined to areas like the Jordan Valley, where there were compelling strategic arguments for Israel to retain them. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had been sympathetic with Israel’s claim for defensible borders during the first Rabin government.
The escalation in strong U.S. statements against Israeli settlements after 1977 was not only due to the Carter administration’s determination that settlements were illegal, but also due to its demand that there be a full Israeli withdrawal from the territories it captured in the Six-Day War. At the same time, as Israeli settlement activity moved beyond the initial parameters that existed prior to 1977, U.S.-Israeli disagreements over this issue intensified.
When the U.S. again became more flexible over Israel’s eventual retention of certain West Bank territories, settlement activity did not prove to be a major cause for bilateral tensions. Thus, when President George W. Bush sent Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a letter on April 14, 2004, acknowledging that, at the end of the day, Israel would obtain defensible borders as well as the large West Bank settlement blocs, Washington and Jerusalem were able to conduct a quiet but useful dialogue, as noted earlier, over the parameters Israel should follow in any settlement activity it undertakes.
The Obama administration’s current focus on Israeli settlement activity – including natural growth – raises a number of questions. If the U.S. is concerned that Israel might diminish the territory that the Palestinians will receive in the future, then the Obama team could continue with the quiet guidelines followed by the Bush administration and the Sharon government.
Given the fact that the amount of territory taken up by the built-up areas of all the settlements in the West Bank is estimated to be 1.7 percent of the territory, the marginal increase in territory that might be affected by natural growth is infinitesimal. Moreover, since Israel unilaterally withdrew 9,000 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the argument that a settler presence will undermine a future territorial compromise has lost much of its previous force.
The U.S. and Israel need to reach a new understanding on the settlements question. It is clearly an overstated issue in the peace process. Legally and diplomatically, settlements do not represent a problem that can possibly justify putting at risk the U.S.-Israel relationship. It might be that the present tension in U.S.-Israeli relations is not over settlements, but rather over the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank that the Obama administration envisions.
For example, it still needs to be clarified whether the Obama administration feels bound by the April 14, 2004, Bush letter to Sharon on defensible borders and settlement blocs, which was subsequently ratified by large bipartisan majorities in both the U.S. Senate (95-3) and the House of Representatives (407-9) on June 23-24, 2004. Disturbingly, on June 1, 2009, the State Department spokesman, Robert Wood, refused to answer repeated questions about whether the Obama administration viewed itself as legally bound by the Bush letter. It would be better to obtain earlier clarification of that point, rather than having both countries expend their energies over an issue that may not be the real underlying source of their dispute.
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Dr. Dore Gold, Israel’s ambassador to the UN in 1997-99, is President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and author of Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (Regnery, 2003), The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City (Regnery, 2007), and The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West (Regnery, forthcoming fall 2009).