The National (Editorial)
July 14, 2009 - 12:00am

Israel, and some American Jews, have been crying foul. Both are claiming that the United States has been leaning too hard on Israel in the peace process, while giving the Palestinians a free pass on their obligations. To counter perceptions of a bias towards the Palestinians, Barack Obama met privately on Monday with 15 American-Jewish leaders at the White House. While he reassured the attendees of the US’s continued support for Israel, the meeting included a pointed message. According to those who attended the meeting, Mr Obama told the leaders that arriving at a two-state solution would require Israel “to engage in serious self-reflection”. He also refused to change his position on settlement construction, an affirmation of his stated plans for a peace accord that ought to reassure the Arab world.

Both the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the defence minister, Ehud Barak, have been insinuating that there is wriggle room on the US’s requirement of a settlement freeze. In particular, Mr Barak has met the US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, to negotiate the issue. They have also attempted to frame the debate as a “family issue”. Freezing settlements, so their narrative goes, is unreasonable. It means new families can’t build larger homes or new schools and hospitals. And approximately two months ago, a letter was leaked supposedly confirming that the US and Israel forged an under-the-table agreement in 2002 to allow for continued partial construction of settlements.

The rhetoric from Israel has been consistent: the US is being unreasonable; Mr Obama misunderstands the complexities of Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he is being tough on Israel simply to court goodwill on the Arab street.

But it is Israel that is being blind. From its perspective, settlement construction may be a matter of urban planning, but to the Palestinians it is theft and violates Israel’s obligations under the road map to peace. These perceptions, not just the hardline views of some of those in Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, should matter to Israel’s leadership. The Palestinians are their negotiating partners in the peace process, not the radical right in Israel.

Israel’s reticence to halt settlement construction is somewhat understandable considering the make-up of its current government. Alienating the settlers could lead to a break-up of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition. Therefore, he is not likely to make such a major concession without some assurances of progress towards peace. But Mr Obama needs a serious concession from Israel in order to obtain the co-operation of sceptical Arab nations. Even a temporary freeze, while it might be politically acceptable in Israel, would probably be insufficient to the Arab world.

For its part, the Arab League has said that it will not make a “down payment” on peace. Thus far neither side has been willing to take the first step towards peace. But in Mr Obama, the Palestinians have a partner who has made it abundantly clear that he is serious in his push for peace. Israel has not shown a similar intent. But that does not mean that the Arab world cannot follow the US’s example, and make clear what they are willing to offer in return for peace and Palestinian statehood. This would not mean rewarding Israel for its intransigence. Instead, any such move should be considered so that Israel itself feels more pressure to make concessions.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017