The US has opposed Israel’s settlement policies for so long that when a senior administration spokesman slams another announcement of construction beyond the Green Line few people take notice.
It’s the proverbial dogs barking at the moving convoy.
But the condemnation issued on Wednesday both by the State Department and White House of plans to build 98 more units near Shiloh is different – both because of the language used and because of what it signals about actions US President Barack Obama may take on the Mideast conflict during his remaining months in office.
First, regarding the language.
Over the years, there have been hundreds of statements by US officials decrying settlement construction. Rarely, however, have the words “strongly condemn” been used.
Syria’s use of chemical weapons are “strongly condemned,” as are barbaric terrorist attacks in Iraq. Announcements of settlement construction, however, are usually met with a “we are deeply concerned,” “we strongly oppose” or “we are deeply disappointed.”
On Wednesday, however, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said: “We strongly condemn the Israeli government’s recent decision to advance a plan that would create a significant new settlement deep in the West Bank.”
Using “strongly condemn” in relation to an announcement of plans to build 98 houses near Shiloh is, for those who follow diplomatic jargon, a leap up a number of steps.
This condemnation is also different because Toner linked the construction announcement to recent events: last month’s signing of a $38 billion, 10-year military aid package; and last Friday’s funeral for Shimon Peres, which Obama attended.
“It is deeply troubling, in the wake of Israel and the US concluding an unprecedented agreement on military assistance designed to further strengthen Israel’s security, that Israel would take a decision so contrary to its long-term security interest in a peaceful resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians,” Toner said in his statement condemning the settlement plans.
“Furthermore, it is disheartening that while Israel and the world mourned the passing of president Shimon Peres, and leaders from the US and other nations prepared to honor one of the great champions of peace, plans were advanced that would seriously undermine the prospects for the two-state solution that he so passionately supported.”
The mentioning of the military aid in the same breath with the housing plans led some to see a hint of linkage, and – indeed – at the State Department briefing after this announcement was issued, Toner was asked whether Israel would face consequences for its actions.
He quickly sought to put to rest the notion that the aid was linked, saying the US commitment to Israel’s security was “unshakable.”
“Our ironclad commitment to Israel’s security is both in Israel’s...
national security interests, but it’s also in the US’s national security interests. The US is safer when there is a safe and secure Israel in the region. But that’s particularly why we find its actions so befuddling, when it takes actions such as continued settlement activity that run counter to what we’re all trying to achieve here.”
That sentence reveals much about Washington’s mindset.
First of all, it is a candid admission that while the extremely generous US aid to Israel is, of course, great for Israel, it is also very much in America’s interests. It is very doubtful the US would undercut that aid because of 98 homes in the West Bank. For, as Toner said and the reality of the last five years in the Middle East has shown, US security is served by a strong Israel. Washington does not want to jeopardize that.
Toner also revealed what has been an underpinning assumption of this administration, and one of the sources of tension with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the last eight years: The US believes it knows what is in Israel’s security interests better than the country’s elected government.
Bringing up Peres’s funeral is also significant and reveals, again, Israel’s often painfully bad sense of timing, echoing the 2010 brouhaha over the announcement of a plan for new houses in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood – over the Green Line – just when Vice President Joe Biden was in town.
Approving settlement construction plans just two days before Obama flew 22 hours to spend only six hours on the ground could – to some – indicate US collusion in the plans.
The uncharacteristically strong nature of the condemnation signals the opposite.
The tone and nature of the statement is also indicative of something else that has plagued the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. For Obama, when it comes to the settlements, there is no gray area – it is all black or white, absolute. All settlement construction is bad everywhere, and in all circumstances.
Had relations between the two leaders been at a better place, the president might have taken into consideration Netanyahu’s domestic political dilemmas and his need to find a solution to prevent him from having to use force to evacuate the Amona outpost by the December 25 deadline set by the High Court.
The evacuation of Amona could cause Netanyahu severe coalition problems, even threatening his government; the approval of the plan to build 98 houses near Shiloh, as part of a bigger project of 300 units, was apparently an attempt to find a resolution to that issue.
Obama could have taken all that into account and tamped down the ferocity of the response. But it wasn’t to be.
The president, obviously, is not looking to take the hot political coals out of the fire for Netanyahu.
And, finally, the reaction is interesting because it may give an indication of what Obama might do regarding the Mideast in those two months between when the US elections are held and he leaves office.
Speculation has centered on the possibility he may give a final speech, laying down what he feels need to be the parameters of any future Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Or, perhaps, he may support a UN resolution that would replace Security Council Resolution 242 as the touchstone for all negotiations.
A third possibility is to throw his support behind an anti-settlement resolution in the UN Security Council, something he vetoed in 2011. The language of Wednesday’s condemnation may indicate he is headed in that direction.
But wasn’t Netanyahu aware of all this? Didn’t he consider that this type of construction announcement now could give Obama justification to go ahead and support an anti-settlement resolution in the Security Council? Certainly. But he also took into consideration the domestic political price of a violent evacuation of Amona. And that, apparently, is weighing even more heavily on his mind.