Two takes on the West Bank settlement debate

If you want to understand the maddeningly complex debate over Israel’s West Bank settlements and U.S. policy, check out these two op-eds that articulately outline two opposing positions.

In today’s Washington Post, columnist Richard Cohen took the Obama administration to task for what he says is its counterproductive focus on stopping settlement construction as a necessary precursor of a viable peace process.

Cohen accurately laid out the emotional punch the issue carries for both sides:

The settlements issue is complicated but not unsolvable. What it is, though, is of enormous symbolic value. Settlements are how Zionists settled Israel — and the Israel that mattered most to some nationalists and Orthodox Jews is not that Miami manqué on the coast, Tel Aviv, but the West Bank areas of Judea and Samaria, the heart of biblical Israel. For a significant number of Israelis, but hardly a majority, settlements have enormous religious and ideological importance. This is not just about 2 rms w/view.

As for the average Palestinian, settlements are a poke in the eye. The construction of each one means yet another piece of his land has gone over to the enemy and cannot be a part of a Palestinian state. It is an in-your-face reminder of impotency, of the inability to control life or fate — and of a baleful history that has seen nothing but defeat. Palestinians would like to win one for a change.

Given that emotional connection for both sides, “it made no sense for the administration — actually, President Obama himself — to promote an absolute moratorium on construction as the prerequisite for peace talks,” Cohen wrote.

Obama, he continued, “foolishly demanded something Israel could not yet give.”

In  yesterday’s  Daily Beast, Peter Beinart argued that the administration was right to focus on settlements and that American Jewish groups that say otherwise are helping "strangle" the peace process.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grudging support of Palestinian statehood was merely a concession in the face of strong U.S. pressure, not a change of heart for the hardline leader, Beinart argued.

American Jewish groups have effectively argued that settlements are a kind of side issue, he argues, and then got to the heart of his argument:

But the problem — or at least a crucial problem — is settlements. Creating a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank could easily require moving 100,000 settlers — ten times as many as Israel removed in Gaza, on far more theologically charged land. All those settlers will have to be financially compensated (at least partially, judging from the Oslo discussions, with U.S. taxpayer dollars). Many will have to be violently confronted, a terrifying prospect given that militant settlers comprise a larger and larger share of the Israeli officer corps. “

Beinart conceded that extending the settlement freeze would be a problem for Netanyahu if he wanted to preserve his right-of-center governing coalition – but argued that’s just the point.

“A prime minister genuinely interested in a final status deal would have said good riddance, and brought in Livni’s Kadima instead, thus creating a government composed of people who actually support a Palestinian state. Netanyahu, however, has not done that, just as he refused to create a centrist government during his first stint as prime minister. The reason is that he likes governing alongside racist, pro-settler parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Ovadiah Yosef’s Shas. They give him political cover to do what he has wanted to do all along: Make a viable Palestinian state impossible.”

There you have it: two radically different takes on an issue that threatens to bring the renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks down in flames.


About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.