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Settlement Reversal Threatens Obama's Israeli-Palestinian Peace Efforts

The United States missed a major opportunity to reassess its unrealistic strategy to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace when Hillary Clinton addressed the invitation-only crowd assembled at the Brookings Institution last Friday.
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The United States missed a major opportunity to reassess its unrealistic strategy to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the invitation-only crowd assembled at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center Annual Forum last Friday.

Hyped by pundits as a major policy statement on Israel/Palestine, Clinton deflated expectations by declaring at the outset to laughter from the audience that "nothing is imminent." And, indeed, her half hour speech replete with well-worn platitudes, failed to break new ground.

Given that the State Department had announced earlier in the week that the United States will no longer press Israel to freeze settlement construction -- the basis of nearly two years of Obama Administration policy -- a strategic reassessment is needed desperately.

Failing to halt Israel's illegal settlement activity and giving up on the prospect of doing so, President Obama now finds himself further than ever from his goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace during his first term, and bereft of a coherent strategy to achieve it.

Ever since Israel's self-declared but unenforced settlement moratorium expired just a few weeks after the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in September, the Obama Administration had been engaged in an unseemly and degrading effort to bribe Israel to agree to a one-time, non-renewable 90-day settlement moratorium extension.

The rather naïve rationale, according to the Obama Administration, was that during this three-month period Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would agree upon the borders of a future Palestinian state, thereby enabling Israel to resume settlement construction on Palestinian land that would be annexed to Israel under a peace agreement.

To induce Israel to accept this proposal, the United States reportedly offered it 20 additional F-35 fighter jets valued at $3 billion, a veto of any Palestinian attempt to get the United Nations to recognize Palestinian statehood, and its assent to a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley.

Yet even these carrots were not enough to get Israel to bite on a temporary freeze on settlements, which, according to a 1978 State Department legal memorandum, are "inconsistent with international law."

After several months of fruitless efforts of practically begging Israel to take the offer, the United States unceremoniously withdrew it. Last Tuesday, an anonymous U.S. official told Politico that "we have determined that a [settlement] moratorium extension will not at this time provide the best basis for resuming negotiations."

Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley made the reversal official on Wednesday, attempting unconvincingly to explain to a skeptical press corps that this reversal is "not at all" a major failure for the Obama Administration.

The problem, according to Crowley, is not Israel's continued colonization of Palestinian land designated for a future state, but the fact that the demand that Israel comply with international law and stop building illegal settlements "had, in a sense, become an end in itself rather than a means to an end. So we are shifting to a different path and we'll be consulting with the parties in the coming days on how to move forward."

This new direction, according to Crowley, will be "to pursue a framework agreement on the permanent status issues. We continue to believe that in order to resolve those core issues, direct negotiations will be required." Left unanswered is how the United States expects even to resume direct negotiations to achieve a framework agreement -- much less an actual peace treaty -- when Israel's colonization of Palestinian land is ongoing. Beset by two years of failure to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace in a meaningful direction, Clinton would do well to listen to her Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner. A few hours prior to Clinton's milquetoast remarks to the Saban Center, I attended the State Department's Human Rights Day Town Hall and asked Posner if the State Department holds Israel to a lower standard of account on human rights than other countries, and if Palestinians were entitled to equal human rights.

Posner responded that there is a "single universal standard that applies to every country, including our own. We apply it to Israelis." He also affirmed that the State Department views "Palestinians as being human beings under the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] and entitled to these rights."

If the United States actually were to take these twin principles -- Israel's accountability to universal human rights standards and Palestinian rights as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- as the basis for a revamped strategy to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, then it would be much more likely to succeed.

You can sign a petition to the Obama Administration, which states that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations must be based on human rights, international law, and UN resolution to be successful. * Josh Ruebner is the National Advocacy Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a national coalition of more than 325 organizations working to change U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine to support human rights, international law, and equality. He is a former Analyst in Middle East Affairs at Congressional Research Service.