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Associated Press/Photo by Sebastian Scheiner

Not settled

Middle East | Obama wants a halt to Jewish building that Israel is in no position to grant

Issue: "Crackdown," July 18, 2009

The Obama administration has a new plan for peace between Palestinians and Israelis: put the full-court press on Israel to freeze all settlement growth while hinting at diplomacy with Hamas, which currently controls Gaza. Longtime observers-and one-time U.S. negotiators-are befuddled by this policy shift, given that Hamas is on Washington's list of terrorist organizations, is funded by Iran, and refuses to recognize Israel's existence. And they are puzzled because at this juncture Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not in a position to comply with a total freeze of settlement activity. Netanyahu's fragile coalition government is largely comprised of religious orthodox parties committed to keeping the West Bank (a territory they refer to as Judea and Samaria). Stopping growth there may be next to impossible.

So why is President Obama putting the pressure on Israel and making overtures to a terrorist organization? Meyrav Wurmser, the director of Hudson Institute's Center for Middle East Policy, said Obama's ultimatums are largely symbolic: "He thinks that the way to the heart of the Muslim world is through a showdown with Israel. . . . I think there's a feeling that our policies were too pro-Israel for too long and now they're starting to pull back."

Although past administrations have opposed new settlement growth, the traditional understanding is that natural growth cannot be stopped. "People have babies," Wurmser pointed out. "It happens."

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That's why previous agreements between the United States and Israel allowed for some growth, according to Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who was on hand for Middle East negotiations as a member of the National Security Council from 2001 to 2009. Abrams disagrees with recent claims by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that no agreements existed and said he was part of talks between the Bush administration and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 that clearly outlined a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four smaller West Bank settlements in exchange for assurances that the United States would not demand a total settlement freeze.

"For reasons that remain unclear, the Obama administration has decided to abandon the understandings about settlements reached by the previous administration with the Israeli government," Abrams wrote in a June 26 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

Wurmser calls the Obama administration's tactics an "absolutely silly waste of time." The Palestinian Authority is on the brink of collapse, she said, pointing to a policy speech by Hamas leader Khaled Meshal on June 25 in Damascus. The leader announced the joining of Hamas with factions of Fatah, and Wurmser said they are close to declaring the formation of a new PLO in order to "shake things up" and further weaken the Palestinian Authority.

The Damascus speech by Meshal bears the fingerprint of Iran, which is Israel's top security concern these days because of both Iran's funding of Hamas and the threat of a nuclear Iran striking Israel. "There's a very different urgency connected to the Iranian issue. There the clock is ticking and it will run out at a certain point," said Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Wurmser, who said she has spoken with Israelis in the highest level of government in recent days, concurs with this analysis: "The Palestinian problem is absolutely important but it's not a matter of life and death for the Jewish fate. The Palestinians cannot destroy Israel. The Iranian bomb can." Although she doesn't have a timetable, Wurmser is convinced that Israel will attack Iran: "I think that they won't have a choice."

Since Obama's June 4 speech in Cairo, during which he defined new relationships with Israel and Hamas, Netanyahu has cancelled meetings with Washington's top Mideast envoy, buying time to bridge the widening gap between the two nations but not stopping activity in existing settlements. Satloff is optimistic that the United States will get its Middle East foreign policy back on track in the meantime: "I'm hopeful the administration will see the larger picture here-that in fact it doesn't go down the route of solely narrow focus on settlement activity."

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