US Affairs: Deconstructing the debate

Tensions are high over America's view that settlement construction is hindering the Annapolis process.

har homa 224 88 (photo credit: )
har homa 224 88
(photo credit: )
It's not the 1992 dispute over loan guarantees, at least. During that low point in US-Israel relations, tensions between America and Israel - as well as those between the US government and the American-Jewish community - erupted because the first Bush administration threatened to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees if Israel didn't stop settlement activity. But today, while no loan guarantees have been withheld, and American Jewry hasn't been mobilized, the US and Israel are having one of their more public disputes since the second Bush administration took office in 2001. And the issue, once again, is over settlements. Though the basic dispute is a long-standing one, as Americans and Israelis have never seen eye-to-eye on settlement construction, the current circumstances have pushed the issue onto the front burner. While it has yet to boil over, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's tenuous position, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's political vulnerabilities and America's new role of road map monitor have all added fuel to the fire. "It's hard to think of another issue over the last few decades that has created more frictions between two close allies than this issue," said David Makovsky, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Project on the Middle East Peace Process. Not only has America always objected to settlement activity, he explained, but it finds itself at odds with Israel, because Israel interprets its commitments as allowing itself to build in areas over the Green Line that will be retained in a final status agreement with the Palestinians. "There's a structural friction between the Israeli viewpoint that the settlement blocs are going to remain Israeli in any sort of new political reality," he said, "and the perception of the US, Europe and the Arabs, who do not make the distinction between what will ultimately be Israel and what will not ultimately be Israel." Though the latter groups might privately acknowledge that Israel will retain those areas, they see construction there before an agreement has been reached as a provocation. From the Israeli perspective, there is an additional difference between construction in east Jerusalem, a part of the city that has been formally annexed to Israel, and construction in the West Bank, which has a separate legal status under Israeli law. Unlike Israel, the international community has generally been unwilling to distinguish between construction in east Jerusalem and construction in the West Bank. Though the difference in viewpoints has been an issue since the US-backed road map peace plan first called for a settlement freeze, America and Israel have recently disagreed publicly much more than in the past. After one Israeli announcement of further construction plans in east Jerusalem and the West Bank in March, US Department of State Spokesman Sean McCormack said of the move: "It's not helpful to the process." But Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev countered, "We've said all along that there won't be a complete freeze in construction in the large settlement blocs." Israel feels its claim to these blocs was enshrined in President George W. Bush's 2004 letter to then prime minister Ariel Sharon, which referred to "new realities on the ground" that made a return to the pre-1967 borders "unrealistic," and meant that construction in these areas should be allowed to continue. But a lot has changed since that letter was written, even if it remains in place. Among the most major developments were the Fatah-Hamas split and the launching of the Annapolis peace process. FOLLOWING THE coup which left Hamas in control of Gaza, Meyrav Wurmser, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Middle East Policy, described Abbas, also known as "Abu Mazen," as "so weak he could fall any day" and "lucky to be alive." In order to keep the Annapolis process going, she said, the US has been looking for something to give Abbas to strengthen him and allow him to avoid signing a unity government deal with Hamas or losing power altogether. "The US needs to deliver something tangible to Abu Mazen," she said. "The 'something tangible' they can give him is pressure on Israel because of the settlements." But Abbas isn't the only one whose political weaknesses are coming into play, according to Makovsky. Olmert also faces coalition pressure from the religious party, Shas, and is trying to satisfy its demands by talking about further settlement construction. "There's no doubt that Shas is the lynchpin here," he said. And Olmert's vulnerability isn't just on the Right, according to David Wurmser, who advised US Vice President Dick Cheney on the Middle East. He said that Olmert also needs to keep his left-wing coalition partners on board by keeping the peace process going, and that he needs to have a positive relationship with the US to maintain leadership. At the same time, he said, the relationship between the two countries and the process governing the settlements has been changing, since the US has assumed its new position monitoring the road map, as agreed to in Annapolis. "By setting up a monitoring force, you're taking a step toward an internationalization of the settlement issue, and that's a very dangerous precedent for Israel," he said. As opposed to the past, when only Israel was making decisions about the settlements, he explained, "Once you're setting up an international [monitor], you're on the way to saying the international community has a say over the settlements." And that, he concluded, "will lead to a tension," because the way that Israel and the US define settlements differs. "Whereas in the past it played the role of facilitator, sponsor or coach in the game of Mideast peacemaking, now the US has assumed the unusual role of referee. It monitors the parties' adherence to their road map commitments and calls them on their failures," noted Ori Nir, a former Israeli correspondent in Washington who now serves as the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. "This is a US role that neither Israelis nor Americans are accustomed to. Obviously, it causes greater tension in their bilateral relationship." But Makovsky said that America would try to keep those tensions - as well as the ones between Israelis and Palestinians - within bounds. "The secretary of state's eyes are on the prize," he said, referring to a final status agreement. When "everyone's throwing mud pies at each other," he explained, it can "bring down the confidence that they're trying to build up." SO FAR, the American findings on violations haven't been made public. To former State Department official Aaron David Miller, though, the issue is more that the new monitoring process is toothless. "Whatever public displays or unpleasantness" there have been between the US and Israel, he said, doesn't mean there will be "any serious restriction or constriction of settlements." Miller, who recently chronicled his experience as a US Middle East adviser in his book, The Much Too Promised Land, said that, for monitoring to work, "you have to bring to bear some measure of accountability." As opposed to, for example, the threats to withhold loan guarantees made under George W. Bush's administration, he said that what's happening now amounts to "what secretaries of state do when they're frustrated with Israeli policies but are unable to do much about it. If you can't act, you talk." So, despite the tough words, Miller said that America was somewhat hamstrung when it came to pressing Israel too hard on settlements, since Abbas had also not been fulfilling his road map commitments on issues such as ending incitement and implementing security measures. That spreads the American frustration wider, and thereby thinner. At the same time, Wurmser of the Hudson Institute said the divide between the US and Israel on settlements wasn't as significant now as it had historically been. "Since the unilateral disengagement by Sharon, more or less there's been a growing Israeli consensus that the settlements will have to be disbanded," she said. "There are disagreements, but at this point, it's bumps along a road that people want to be riding."