Analysis: Is Obama looking for a fight over 'natural growth'?

A public fight with Israel could win credit with the Arab world and legitimacy among the Europeans.

netanyahu listens to obama 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu listens to obama 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
"A 'settlement freeze' would not help Palestinians face today's problems or prepare for tomorrow's challenges," Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser under former US president George Bush, wrote in April in The Washington Post. "The demand for a freeze would have only one quick effect: to create immediate tension between the United States and Israel's new government," he wrote. "That may be precisely why some propose it, but it is also why the Obama administration should reject it." Abrams proved prophetic: the issue has indeed created immediate tension with the US, not over illegal outposts - Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has made it clear he will remove them - but over "natural growth" in the settlements. The question is why the US is looking for this fight, and why Obama has not heeded Abrams's advice and rejected those pushing him in a confrontation over the matter. Truth be told, comments by Obama himself on the subject have not pointed to a looming battle. After his meeting with Netanyahu in the White House last week, Obama spoke - much as Bush spoke before him - in rather general terms about a need for Israel to stop settlement construction. "There is a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements, that settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward," he said, using language heard often in the past. The indication that a fight was brewing came when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an Al-Jazeera interview - an interview whose transcript was circulated last Wednesday by the State Department - that a freeze is just that: a complete and total freeze, even for "natural growth." That position, as was made abundantly clear at Sunday's cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, is not acceptable to the current Netanyahu government. Even Defense Minister Ehud Barak, representing the left flank of the government, said it was illogical to accept a principle whereby a family could not add on to their 45-meter house to accommodate more children, or whereby veterans of IDF units couldn't return - with their wives - to the settlements of their birth to live near their parents. So a clash is in the making, though coming to some kind of agreement on this issue was one of the main objectives that Intelligence Services Minister Dan Meridor, National Security Advisor Uzi Arad and Yitzhak Molcho, Netanyahu's envoy on the Palestinian issue, took with them to London this week for their meeting with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell. Israel's position, or its hope, is that this issue can be finessed, just as it was finessed under the previous government. Or, as Netanyahu told a visiting Congressional delegation on Wednesday, there is a need to find a way with the US administration to enable "normal life" in the settlements to continue. If Obama says no settlements, but doesn't mention natural growth, leaving Clinton to do that, does that mean there is wiggle room? Nobody knows yet. Not too long ago, Clinton's predecessor Condoleezza Rice caused consternation in Jerusalem when she began referring to Israeli neighborhoods in east Jerusalem as settlements. But then Jerusalem was able to say, "Hey, that's only Rice. Bush doesn't feel that way." The problem is that no one quite knows the dynamics yet on these issues inside the Obama administration. Israeli officials are confident - perhaps overly confident - that if they "line up" with the US administration on the "right side of the fence" on most settlement issues, they could find a formula to work regarding natural growth. This means that if, as the Olmert government declared, the Netanyahu government says it will uproot illegal outposts, not set up new settlements, not give incentives to move to the settlements, and not expropriate any additional Palestinian lands, then the conventional wisdom in the current government is that the US would permit - as it has in the past - natural growth construction as long as it does not go beyond the existing construction lines. But what if Obama, as some maintain, is actually looking for a public fight with Israel on this issue in order to win credit with the Arab world, and legitimacy among the Europeans as a leader who is willing to take Israel on when necessary? That could be a tricky tactic, because if the US president picks a fight with Israel over the natural growth issue at a time when Israel has declared it won't build new settlements, expropriate land or give incentives to move there, then it could be perceived among some Obama supporters in Congress as being unfairly tough on Israel, especially since various verbal understandings were made over the years that Israel interpreted as a green light for natural growth. Indeed, what is lacking is clarity, not about where Israel stands on the issue at this point, but where Obama stands, and how far he will push. Clinton's position is clear - but is she also speaking for the president? As Abrams wrote in April, "for the past five years, Israel's government has largely adhered to guidelines that were discussed with the United States but never formally adopted: that there would be no new settlements, no financial incentives for Israelis to move to settlements and no new construction except in already built-up areas. The clear purpose of the guidelines? To allow for settlement growth in ways that minimized the impact on Palestinians." The new Netanyahu government has made clear it will abide by those guidelines, and even go further, by taking down illegal outposts. What remains to be seen, what has to be clarified, is whether the Obama administration feels bound by these same guidelines. If it doesn't, then a clash over the issue is all but inevitable.•