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(photo credit: AP)
The Obama administration has been taking advantage of the unusually long Israeli political interlude to bat away questions about how it will deal with a Binyamin Netanyahu-led coalition. The public record only makes it clear that the administration is looking forward to working with the new government of its important friend and ally, that it is committed to pursuing a two-state solution and that the settlements are viewed as facilitating neither.
Indeed, on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first trip to Israel, her most content-full - and contentious - point was to chastise the country not merely for settlement expansion, but for destruction of Palestinian building, without permits, in Jerusalem.
With the government finally in place, and the Obama team eager to make its mark on the region, settlements are expected to come even more sharply into focus. Speculation is rampant in Washington that President Barack Obama will come out swiftly in favor of a halt in settlement construction - including, contrary to Israel's desires, a freeze on natural growth.
Part of what makes a strong stand on settlements attractive from the administration's perspective, for starters, is that it doesn't have a lot of other places it can go searching for results these days. After all, the Palestinian Authority is in disarray, as Fatah and Hamas wrestle for control; all the while, the rockets that continue to slam into the Negev make moves tinkering with security, particularly any sort of withdrawal, hard to envision.
When it comes to Netanyahu, who has expressed wariness about the Palestinian peace negotiations conducted by the previous government, and who has been having a tough time uttering the phrase "two-state solution," there is yet another brake light.
"It's pretty obvious that they feel like they can't really push him on final status," said one Washington-based veteran Middle East observer. "So they want to push him on deliverables."
And the deliverable of a settlement freeze, in the view of team Obama, could at least keep things from getting worse - and, as former peace envoy Dennis Ross (now a senior adviser mostly dealing with Iran issues) has been fond of arguing, even when the US isn't in a position to play dealmaker because the parties aren't ready, American can still serve an important function by managing the conflict.
"They want to make sure there's no continued erosion in the status quo, in the situation on the ground," said the Middle East expert, pointing to a settlement freeze as the best way to get there.
It also might be a way for the administration to handle its relationship with a coalition that is far from its ideal - heavily leaning to the right, with a full slate of haredi parties, and a foreign minister in the person of Avigdor Lieberman, commonly perceived outside of Israel as anti-Arab and bellicose.
THE OBAMA camp received some political cover when Labor joined the coalition and turned it into a national-unity consensus, allowing the US to breathe more easily when it stands beside Israel on the global stage. Still, aware that Lieberman is perceived as a liability from London to Riyadh, setting some firm ground rules in the form of settlement policy could help America withstand international charges of kowtowing to the Israeli Right.
Similarly, it could help the moderate Arab states deal with Israel as well.
An official with a dovish Israel organization argued that Arab governments will now need to show a real reason to engage, given the government makeup - a reason to keep their peace plan on the table: a settlement freeze.
"They won't do it otherwise," he said, adding that he believed the administration not only saw it as vital to making progress with the Arabs, but also to help lock in place the two-state solution and "speed up the irreversibility of the process," so that Netanyahu's ambivalence won't doom the two-state program.
"I think the administration sees this as an absolute necessity to getting anything done," he said of a settlement freeze.
WASHINGTON HAS been buzzing with similar assessments, especially among those who would most like to it see it happen, but also among some who are less supportive.
Ghaith al-Omari, advocacy director for the Washington-based Task Force on Palestine, talked about a consensus being articulated around town that "a settlement freeze is essential for preserving and sustaining the possibility of a two-state solution," and attributed that view to key congressmen, among others, many of whom are close to Obama.
"It's not coming from the usual suspects. It's coming from Jewish members who have impeccable credentials, from members who are known as being Israel's friends," he said.
In one of the more public recent displays, John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared that for decades America's policy opposing settlement expansion has "existed on paper alone."
"Nothing will do more to make clear our seriousness about turning the page than demonstrating - with actions rather than words - that we are serious about Israel's freezing settlement activity in the West Bank," he told a distinguished audience at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center.
Omari acknowledged that the Obama administration itself hasn't said much on the topic yet, but he and others see significance in the volume of the talk outside the administration that a firm stance on settlements is coming.
They point to the openness the administration has shown to voices on the left side of the Israeli political spectrum - inviting more of these organizations to participate in conference calls and meetings with officials, for instance - and the prominence which backers of such views had in Obama's presidential campaign.
Some are also calling attention to George Mitchell, whom Obama tapped to be his envoy on Israeli-Palestinian issues, and who once coauthored a government report urging a halt in settlement activity.
Yet when Mitchell was on the phone with some of those very Israeli and Jewish groups in February, he said that he would not "prejudge" the settlement issue, a surprise to many on the line.
Nathan Diament of the Orthodox Union, for one, urges caution in reading too much into the Obama team's orientation at this point.
"There's been all sorts of speculation and punditry and hand-wringing, and they haven't tipped their hand one way or the other," said Diament, whose organization supports Israeli policy toward West Bank settlements, and considers Jerusalem an undivided city in whose eastern parts Jews should be allowed to build, despite the overwhelming Arab populations there. "I prefer to wait and see what happens, rather than speculate and expect."
The official word from the State Department? The administration's Middle East policy is still being reviewed, but settlement activity, according to a spokesman, is "unhelpful."