Rattling the Cage: Give us an inch, we'll settle a mile

How can we tell Obama to honor an unwritten pact that his predecessor made (or didn't make) with us, when we didn't even keep our word to his predecessor?

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
When even Jimmy Carter says Gush Etzion should remain in Israeli hands, there's no need anymore to discuss whether we're going to hold onto the large settlement blocs, including the "new" neighborhoods of Jerusalem, in any final peace agreement. This is territory we've insisted on in the "land swaps" we've been negotiating with the Palestinians since Camp David. They accept the principle of land swaps across the Green Line, the Israeli peace camp insists on it, the Clinton and Bush administrations supported it and I have absolutely no doubt the Obama administration supports it, too. So why is Barack Obama and his team telling Israel to stop all settlement construction, even in the settlements everyone understands we're going to keep, and why does the peace camp say Obama is right? Because the peace camp knows, like Obama knows, like everyone in the world knows, that on the matter of settlements, if you give this country an inch, it will take a mile. That's what's so ridiculous about the dispute with the US over whether the Bush administration agreed to let the Sharon government build up settlements within certain limits: Even if such an agreement was made, we never held up our end. How can we tell Obama to honor an unwritten pact that his predecessor made (or didn't make) with us, when we didn't even keep our word to his predecessor? The dispute goes back to May 2003, and it concerns whether the Bush administration agreed that construction could continue in the settlement blocs so long as it didn't eat up more land, and so long as the government didn't offer financial incentives to new settlers. Ariel Sharon's chief negotiator Dov Weissglas and George W. Bush's Middle East envoy Elliott Abrams say the US agreed, while Bush's ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer says the US didn't. But everybody, even Weissglas and Abrams, knows that the settlements have, of course, eaten up more land - in the settlement blocs and beyond - since May 2003 when that unwritten agreement either was or wasn't made. "There has been physical expansion in some places, and the Palestinian Authority is right to object to it. Israeli settlement expansion beyond the security fence, in areas Israel will ultimately evacuate, is a mistake," Abrams wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in April. Weissglas, in his interview last Friday with The Jerusalem Post's David Horovitz, hemmed and hawed, but his message was clear. "I can't say that there wasn't an instance here or there of building beyond construction lines, because I don't have all the information, but in most of the settlements there certainly wasn't," he said. Taking Israel's side in the dispute, Abrams and Weissglas say construction beyond those blocs since May 2003 has been minimal, and that Israel has kept faithfully to its other commitments in the supposed agreement: not building new settlements, not expropriating Palestinian-owned land for settlements and not offering financial incentives to new settlers. They're wrong, though. Israel hasn't kept those other commitments, either. ACCORDING TO Peace Now's Settlement Watch, eight new settlements have gone up in the West Bank since May 2003 - they're just not called settlements, they're called "outposts." As for expropriation of Palestinian-owned land, much of the land taken for those eight new outposts, as well for the expansion of many of the 90-odd previously existing outposts, is owned by Palestinians. The government didn't officially expropriate that land - the folks at the outposts just took it, the government let them and the IDF guarded them. Besides, we don't need to expropriate Palestinian-owned land to build settlements - there's plenty of Israeli "state land" in the West Bank to build on. This is land that Palestinians claim to own but which hasn't been recognized as such by official Israel. Meanwhile, settlement construction on state land is proceeding as usual, no expropriations necessary. And as for financial incentives, The Post's Tovah Lazaroff and Rebecca Anna Stoil reported this week that the government, to this day, is offering preferential mortgages to people who move to certain settlements, such as those near Nablus. Those places are way, way beyond the settlement blocs and were built for the expressed purpose of blocking Palestinian statehood. So who are we kidding? We never kept our side of any May 2003 agreement over settlements with the Bush administration, if there was such a thing. In the six years since, settlement construction has eaten up an additional 2,000 dunams of the West Bank, according to a rough estimate by Hagit Ofran of Peace Now's Settlement Watch. So our telling Obama now that he's breaking America's word by insisting on a real settlement freeze is just plain gall - or, as we call it around here, chutzpa. In principle, I would like to see construction go on within, but not beyond, Gush Etzion, Alfei Menashe, East Talpiot and the other large settlements that we will be keeping if and when a peace treaty is signed. But I know that in practice, we will not respect any such limits in building over the Green Line. Even if the Netanyahu government wanted to curtail settlement construction, which it doesn't, the settlers would flout the government's will as they always have and keep on building here, there, everywhere. So Obama should hang tough. The sad thing is that even if he doesn't give us an inch on the settlement freeze, we'll probably end up taking a mile anyway. If he caves in and agrees to give us that inch, we'll take two miles.