President Barack Obama has inherited a difficult challenge in pushing Israel to end the expansion of its illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. With the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu categorically rejecting the idea of a freeze and with Democratic-controlled Congress ruling out using the billions of dollars of U.S. military aid to Israel as leverage, the situation remains deadlocked.
Along with many Israelis and other supporters of Israel, Obama recognizes that these settlements are one of the chief obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Given that Israel cannot be secure unless the Palestinians are also given the right to a state of their own and that a viable Palestinian state cannot be created as long as Israel continues colonizing Palestinian land on the West Bank, Obama sees a settlement freeze as critical.
Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan and other foreign policy dilemmas facing the new administration, however, the Democrats cannot blame Obama’s challenges primarily on the legacy of George W. Bush. In the case of the Israeli settlements, much of the blame belongs to former President Bill Clinton and other Democrats who helped facilitate Israel’s dramatic expansion of its West Bank settlements in the 1990s.
The Purpose of the Settlements
Although the 1967 Israeli invasion of the West Bank, then controlled by the Kingdom of Jordan, was initially justified to create a "buffer zone" to protect Israelis, it soon became apparent that the actual goal was to expand Israeli territory.
With enough Israelis living in sizable developments throughout the occupied territory, so went the reasoning, the demographics would be altered so as to make it impossible for a contiguous Palestinian state to emerge. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan acknowledged that although the settlements did not help Israel’s security situation, they were still needed since, "without them the IDF would be a foreign army ruling a foreign population."
Ariel Sharon, who prior to becoming prime minister served as the housing minister in earlier right-wing governments overseeing settlement expansion, bragged in 1995 that these settlements were "the only factor" that had prevented then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from agreeing to withdraw from the occupied territories entirely as part of the 1993 Oslo Agreement.
Sharon, who has been praised as a peacemaker by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democratic leaders, expressed his pride in the fact that this had "created difficulties" in the negotiations with the Palestinians. Indeed, had Israel’s Labor governments not had to worry about the domestic political consequences from such a withdrawal as a result of these illegal settlements, there would probably have been peace years ago.
Now with right-wing parties dominating Israeli politics and nearly a half-million Israeli settlers on land that was to become a Palestinian state, it will be even more difficult.
The Palestine Authority — including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, his Fatah party, and the Palestine Liberation Organization — have already recognized exclusive Israeli control of 78 percent of Palestine, yet the Israelis have insisted on expanding their control over much of the remaining 22 percent through this colonization drive. While the Palestine Authority has administration over the majority of the West Bank’s Palestinian population, Israeli occupation forces still control much of the land in between these towns and cities, with hundreds of checkpoints severely restricting the movement of people and goods within the West Bank, in order to protect these settlements. Clashes between right-wing settler militias, often back by the Israeli army, and local Palestinians are common.
These settlements and the swathes of territories connecting them to each other and to Israel divide the Palestinian-controlled territory into 43 noncontiguous cantons separated by Israeli checkpoints, thereby making the creation of a viable Palestinian state virtually impossible. Indeed, this appears to be the principle reason for Israel’s colonization drive and why so many U.S. officials have supported it.
It is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention for any country to transfer its civilian population onto lands seized by military force. A landmark 2004 ruling by the World Court underscored the obligation of signatories such as the United States to make a good-faith effort to enforce such international legal obligations on countries with which they have influence, but Democratic congressional leaders joined President George W. Bush in denouncing the decision. Furthermore, under U.N. Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465 and 471, Israel is explicitly required to withdraw from these settlements, but successive Democratic and Republican administrations — with support of congressional leaders of both parties — have blocked the United Nations from enforcing these resolutions.
A History of Inaction
As part of an annex in the 1978 Camp David Agreement between Israel and Egypt, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin promised a five-year settlement freeze. When the Israelis resumed construction after only three months, President Jimmy Carter refused to hold Begin to his promise, even though Carter acknowledged that these settlements were illegal and the United States was given the role of guarantor of the peace treaty. This was not the last time the Israeli government would promise to freeze settlements only to break that promise with the knowledge that the Democratic leadership in Washington would let them get away with it.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush insisted on a settlement freeze as a condition to granting a controversial $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel. In response, leading members of Congress — including the leading candidates for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination — attacked Bush from the right by calling on the president to grant the loan guarantee unconditionally.
These predominantly Democratic critics claimed that the loans were to be used for housing for Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, despite the fact that none of the money in the loan agreement was actually earmarked for such purposes and Israel had thousands of unoccupied housing units then available, even in the city of Beersheva, where most of the recent immigrants were initially being settled.
Indeed, the Israeli government acknowledged that the loans were more of a cushion than anything vital to the economy. Despite this, Democratic leaders like Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, insisted that Bush was "holding Soviet Jews hostage" and challenged the administration’s assessment that expanding Israeli settlements was an obstacle to peace.
Under pressure from the Democrats — who then controlled both houses of Congress — as well as incipient Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton, Bush capitulated and approved the loan guarantee with Israel in July 2002, getting the Israelis to only limit new construction to the "natural growth" of existing settlements. By the following year, however, it became apparent that Israel, with the acquiescence of the new Clinton administration, interpreted this restriction so liberally that the number of new Israeli colonists in the occupied territories grew faster than ever.
Indeed, this infusion of billions of dollars worth of U.S.-backed loans were critical in enabling Israel to embark on the dramatic expansion of Israeli settlements in the coming years.
When the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993, the Palestinians pressed to address the settlements issue immediately. The Clinton administration, however, insisted that such discussions be delayed. By putting off such a fundamental issue as the settlements as a "final status issue," the United States gave the Israelis the ability to continue to create facts on the ground even as the peace process slowly moved forward.
Clinton knew this would make a final peace agreement all the more difficult, yet at no point did the administration insist that Israel stop the expansion of Jewish settlements and confiscation of land that the Palestinians and others had assumed was destined to be part of a Palestinian state.
It is only because of these settlements that the boundaries for a future Palestinian state envisioned by Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the July 2000 summit at Camp David took its unviable geographic dimensions, which forced Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to reject it. Barak, with the support of Clinton, insisted on holding on to 69 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where 85 percent of the settlers live.
Furthermore, under Barak’s U.S.-backed plan, the West Bank would have been split up by a series of settlement blocs, bypass roads and Israeli roadblocks, in effect dividing the new Palestinian "state" into four noncontiguous cantons, requiring Palestinians and much of the country’s domestic commerce to go through Israeli checkpoints to go from one part of their state to another.
In addition, according to this proposal, Israel would also control Palestinian water resources in order to give priority of that scarce resource to the settlements.
There is little question that the failure of Camp David could have been avoided had Bill Clinton used his considerable leverage to halt the settlement expansion at the start of the peace process. Even top Clinton administration officials like Robert Malley have acknowledged that the United States had not been tough enough on Israel for its settlement drive, and this failure to do so was a major factor in the collapse of the peace process.
Despite this, in October of that year, the U.S. House of Representatives, with only 30 dissenting votes, adopted a Democratic-sponsored resolution that claimed that Israel had "expressed its readiness to take wide-ranging and painful steps in order to bring an end to the conflict, but these proposals were rejected by Chairman Arafat."
Pelosi to this day insists that Barak had made "a generous and historic proposal," and Howard Berman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, claimed during committee hearings that Arafat’s rejection of Barak’s proposal was indicative of the Palestinians’ determination "to destroy Israel." In the view of congressional Democrats, then, if you refuse to accept the large-scale foreign colonization of your country, you are not interested in peace.
Clinton did not just tolerate the expansion of settlements, he actually encouraged it. Under pressure from peace and human rights groups, Bush had attached a provision to the 1992 loan-guarantee agreement requiring the president to deduct the costs of additional settlement activity from the $2 billion annual installment of the loan.
In October 1993, the U.S. officially announced to Israel that there would be a $437 million deduction in the next year’s loan guarantee due to settlement construction during the 1993 fiscal year. However, State Department Middle East peace talks coordinator Dennis Ross (whom Obama has appointed to a key State Department post addressing regional issues) immediately let the Israeli government know that the United States would find a way to restore the full funding. Within a month, Clinton authorized Israel to draw an additional $500 million in U.S. military supplies from NATO warehouses in Europe.
A similar scenario unfolded the following year: After deducting $311.8 million spent on settlements from the1995 loans, Clinton authorized $95.8 for help in redeploying troops from the Gaza Strip and $240 million to facilitate withdrawal from West Bank cities, based on the rather dubious assertion that it costs more to withdraw troops than to maintain them in hostile urban areas.
Clinton explicitly promised the Israelis that aid would remain constant regardless of Israeli settlement policies. What resulted, then, was that the United States began, in effect, subsidizing the settlements, since the Israelis knew that for every dollar that they contributed to maintaining and expanding their presence in the occupied territories, the United States would convert a loan guarantee into a grant.
Over 100 settlements lie outside what most observers consider could realistically be annexed to Israel under a mutually acceptable peace plan. Between the Oslo II accord in September 1995 and the start of final-status talks in March 2000, successive Israeli governments were envisioning maintaining all but the most isolated of these settlements, which would restrict the territory of a Palestinian state into a series of noncontiguous cantons.
Following Arafat’s rejection of that strategy and the subsequent outbreak of violence in Israel and the occupied territories that fall, Clinton and Barak largely abandoned this strategy by December, belatedly expressing an openness to reducing them to a much smaller number of settlement blocs. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the next few weeks came close to producing a final peace agreement, but with George W. Bush assuming office in the United States and Ariel Sharon become prime minister in Israel, they were suspended.
Over the next eight years, the Israelis reverted back to the old strategy with no apparent objections from the Bush administration or congressional Democrats.
A particular sore point for Palestinians over the settlements arose from the Oslo Accords, which refer to the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a "single territorial unit, the integrity and status of which will be preserved during the interim period." This was essentially a prohibition against either side taking steps that could prejudice the permanent-status negotiations. As a result, the Palestinians — when they signed the agreement — assumed that this would prevent the Israelis from building more settlements.
Furthermore, as the principal guarantor of the Oslo agreement, the United States was obliged to force Israel to cease its construction if they tried to do so. However, Israel and the United States have refused to live up to their obligations, and — since the signing of the Oslo Accords — the total number of settlers in the occupied territories has nearly doubled from approximately 250,000 to close to a half-million, moving onto land that the Palestinians assumed would be returned to the 3 million Palestinians that already live there and the large numbers of refugees who would presumably be resettling to the new Palestinian state.
To the shock of much of the international community, the Clinton administration also insisted that the Fourth Geneva Convention and the four U.N. Security Council resolutions addressing the settlements issue were suddenly no longer relevant. In 1997, the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution sponsored by France, Portugal, Sweden and Great Britain calling on Israel to cease its settlement activities and come into compliance with the Fourth Geneva Convention. Shortly thereafter, the United States vetoed a second resolution calling on Israel to cease construction of an illegal settlement in an environmentally sensitive area near Bethlehem designed to complete the encirclement of Arab East Jerusalem.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright had called on the United Nations to no longer draft resolutions dealing with settlements since "these issues are now under negotiations by the parties themselves."
In reality, neither the Fourth Geneva Convention nor the U.N. Security Council resolutions can be superseded by a bilateral agreement, particularly when one of the two parties (in this case, the Palestinians) insist they are still relevant. Indeed, none of the other 14 members of the Security Council accepted the Clinton administration radical reinterpretation of international law in their support for Israel’s settlement policies. Furthermore, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan — backed by a broad consensus of international legal scholars — repeatedly insisted that these Security Council resolutions were still valid.
Given the gross asymmetry in power between the Palestinians under occupation and the Israeli occupiers — whose primary military, economic and diplomatic supporter was also the chief mediator in the negotiations — it was rather obvious that the U.S.-led peace process would be unable to stop settlement expansion. It appears, then, that the Clinton administration’s insistence on sidelining the United Nations was to enable Israel to do just that.
It was during this period that the Israelis began building a massive highway system of 29 roads totaling nearly 300 miles, designed to perpetuate effective Israeli control of most of the West Bank.
These highways — designed to connect the settlements with each other and with Israel proper — are creating a series of borders and barriers, in effect isolating Palestinian areas into islands. In addition, since Israel has defined these highways as "security roads," they reach a width of 350 yards (50 yards of road plus 150 yards of "sanitized" margins on each side), the equivalent of 3 1/2 football fields. This has resulted in the destruction of some of the area’s richest farmland, including olive groves and vineyards that have been owned and farmed by Palestinian families for generations.
The impact of such a massive road system in an area the size of Delaware is staggering, and has serious political, economic and environmental implications.
As part of what Clinton referred to as "implementation funding" of the 1998 Wye River Agreement, in which Israel agreed to withdraw from an additional 14 percent of the West Bank, the United States offered $1.2 billion in supplementary foreign aid to the Israeli government. Most of the funding was reserved for armaments, but much of the nonmilitary funding was apparently earmarked to build these "bypass roads" and security enhancements for Israeli settlers in the occupied territories.
Such direct subsidies for Israeli settlements placed the United States in violation of Article 7 of U.N. Security Council Resolution 465, which prohibits member states from assisting Israel in its colonization drive. So, not only has the United States allowed Israel to violate U.N. Security Council resolutions in continuing to maintain and expand its illegal settlements, Clinton placed the United States itself in violation of a U.N. Security Council mandate as well.
Once filled with enormous hope with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Palestinians have since seen more and more of their land confiscated and more and more Jewish-only settlements and highways constructed, all under the cover of a U.S.-sponsored "peace process."
It was frustration over the failure of the peace process to end Israel’s colonization drive that contributed to large numbers of Palestinians rejecting the diplomatic approach of Fatah and other moderate nationalists and embracing Hamas. Indeed, prior to this dramatic growth in settlements during the 1990s, Palestinian support for Hamas was less than 15 percent. Now it is close to a majority.
Ironically, the Democrats’ criticism during the 2008 election campaign of the Bush administration’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was that they were not engaged enough, in contrast to the Clinton administration, whose policies were widely praised. It is important, however, to remember that it was the former Democratic administration’s policies on Israeli settlements that have largely contributed to the dangerous impasse we see today.