Line in the Sand

June 1, 2009 8:04 pm

Among those lobbying hardest for real progress toward a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there has been deep disappointment that President Obama appears unlikely to specifically address the conflict, or any proposals for resolving it, in his upcoming speech in Cairo. If not now, when?, the thinking goes. And the longer Obama goes without setting forth his own plan, the more likely he is to miss his opportunity and drift back into the endless cycle of confidence building measures that lead nowhere.

But one very encouraging sign is that the Obama administration seems to be serious on the issue of settlements. Laura Rozen published this very interesting post last week in which she reported that after his trip to the White House, Prime Minister Netanyahu had been probing through back channels looking for some for some ‘give’ in Obama’s line on settlements. But he wasn’t finding any. As Laura put it, …

According to many observers in Washington and Israel, the Israeli prime minister, looking for loopholes and hidden agreements that have often existed in the past with Washington, has been flummoxed by an unusually united line that has come not just from the Obama White House and the secretary of state, but also from pro-Israel congressmen and women who have come through Israel for meetings with him over Memorial Day recess. To Netanyahu’s dismay, Obama doesn’t appear to have a hidden policy. It is what he said it was.

The Times tomorrow has a piece on the same topic, saying something similar though in much more general terms. Here Netanyahu is reacting to the unreasonableness of placing restrictions on what is termed “natural growth”, a euphemism that one must understand to get a proper handle on the whole question.

In Israel, the language of settlement growth is divided into two categories — building new settlements and “natural growth” of existing ones. Even the Netanyahu government says it won’t allow new settlements, only the ‘natural growth’ of original ones. And that doesn’t sound unreasonable on the face of it. After all, families grow. Children get married and start their own families.

Many of the current settlements are much bigger in terms of the land that has been designated for them then they’re actually built up. So, for instance, take the example of Manhattan at the end of the 18th century. If you could go back with an airplane and cruise over this island of ours you’d see that New York then was still a settlement mainly restricted to the southern tip of the Island. Today the whole island is packed to the gills with people and buildings. By the terms of settlement vocabulary, that’s all just been ‘natural growth’, just filling out an already existing area designated for settlement.

In any case, ‘natural growth’ really is the most natural thing in the world if — and this is what all turns on — if you think the settlements are permanent. If the existing settlements are permanent, then it’s silly to think that one settler can live in a house but it’s forbidden to build a new house on the lot next door.

But if the settlements are permanent, then a Palestinian state is basically impossible. And that means the occupation is permanent, as is the conflict.

Now, if you think arresting the growth of the settlements in the dysfunctional politics of contemporary Israel is difficult, try dismantling them. I’ve long worried that any effort to dismantle them would lead to something like civil war in the country. Because the settlers, at least the most ideological ones, are completely indifferent to the rule of law.

But resolving the conflict is impossible with the West Bank settlements. And before you can dismantle them, you have to start to by stopping their growth. And on this point Obama seems like he means business.

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