What a settlement freeze would do

Obama must embrace Bush's commitments on settlement blocs, natural growth.

settlement ofra 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
settlement ofra 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Search through the 1,000-word plus statement issued last Friday by the Middle East Quartet and you might be surprised by what turns up. For instance, the Quartet basically told the Palestinians that a peace deal with Israel would require them to end all other claims - implying abandonment of the "right of return." The Quartet also reiterated that Palestinian unity required Hamas to commit "to non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations." It even demanded the immediate release of Gilad Schalit. Yet, predictably, it was the Quartet's demand for a freeze on all settlement activity that dominated the news coverage. THERE ARE signs that the international community's full-court press against settlements, with the Obama administration in the forefront, is wearing the Netanyahu government down. The Palestinians' position is that if settlements don't stop, negotiations won't start; and they define settlements broadly - as Jewish life beyond the Green Line. The Israeli government, under withering pressure from Washington, is reportedly floating the idea of a three-to-six-month settlement freeze to coax Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table. Barack Obama might want to reflect on how his push for a freeze is being seen among mainstream Israelis - those who want a peace deal. They wonder why there is no withering campaign to pressure Abbas into insisting that a Fatah-Hamas unity government explicitly accept the Quartet's principles. Or why ranking administration officials aren't demanding that Abbas explain why he rejected Ehud Olmert's unprecedented offer amounting to the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank. They are left uneasy by the administration's parsimonious reaction to Netanyahu's seminal Bar-Ilan speech on a two-state solution. How can Netanyahu garner more domestic support to move vigorously against illegal outposts when Obama is essentially saying that in his eyes, Ma'aleh Adumim is an illegal outpost. It's hard to see. Netanyahu articulated the consensus position of the Israeli body politic: "Palestine" must be demilitarized so that we don't wake up to find Iranian Revolutionary Guards overlooking Ben-Gurion Airport; that the Palestinian refugee issue must be addressed within the boundaries of Palestine; that, by extension, in a region which includes two dozen Muslim states, the Palestinians need to give up the "right of return" and accept Israel as the Jewish state. And that Israel cannot agree to pull back to the hard-to-defend 1949 Armistice Lines. Settlement issues are complicated and the government's policy often seems incoherent at best. For instance, it is retroactively legalizing 60 apartments built without approval just outside Talmon. It is also belatedly building 50 new homes in Adam to accommodate the residents of unauthorized Migron, which it wants to dismantle. In the ideal world, Netanyahu's office should be breaking news of construction over the Green Line, and explaining it in the context of previous understandings with the US. Would a temporary settlement freeze bring us any closer to peace? More likely, it would encourage the Palestinians to dig in their heels. Why not hold out for a permanent freeze? Or one that applied to metropolitan Jerusalem? David Ignatius of The Washington Post recently quoted a senior Arab diplomat as telling him that a settlement freeze won't cut it. What the Arabs demand is an imposed solution. This is basically what Obama has also been hearing from some in the ostensibly pro-Israel community in Washington, led by J Street. WERE HE to piggy-back on the Israeli consensus, Obama could bring us closer to the two-state solution George W. Bush envisioned. To do so, however, he would need to embrace the former president's commitments on settlement blocs and his administration's understanding regarding settlement growth. Remarkably, these now dovetail with the position taken by a sitting Likud premier. Netanyahu has also taken extraordinary and potentially risky steps to improve the negotiating atmosphere - a dramatic reduction in preventative IDF operations and the lifting of virtually all internal checkpoints in the West Bank. Israel is so not interested in a confrontation with the popular American president that Obama may feel he can insist upon an across-the-board and unconditional settlement freeze. The danger, if that happened, is that support for a deal among Israelis, predicated on Netanyahu's articulation of Bush's vision, would decline. And the Palestinians would become even more intransigent.