Shafir: The End of US Relevance

Gershon Shafir writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

The Obama Administration, like every other American administration, has failed to convince Israel to freeze the expansion of its settlements on the occupied West Bank. It has belatedly extracted a 10-month long moratorium, but only after Netanyahu has excluded Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem and allowed 3,000 homes already under construction to be completed. Not a week seems to pass without another slap to the freeze. On Sunday, it included increased funding for yet more settlements in Israel’s map of national priority zones.

A very-likely embarrassed Hilary Clinton “welcomed” the Israeli announcement–but no one was fooled. The expansion of Israeli settlements eats away at the land and resources Palestinians claim for their state, and demonstrates lack of Israeli commitment to the formation of two viable states through territorial partition

Netanyahu offers several reasons to justify his intransigence. The first is that his government will fall and the second, that a policy of freeze leads to clashes with settlers. Netanyahu’s government, however, has not fallen–and if it did he could bring in left-of-center parties that are actually committed to a two-state solution.

The clashes between the settlers and the Israeli military are just as misconstrued. The fact is that Israeli settlements remain in the West Bank only by virtue of the protection provided by the very military that is threatened by the settler “hilltop youth.” No soldiers, no settlements. Truth to be told, any serious injuries or loss of life sustained by Israeli soldiers at the hand of setters would irrevocably isolate the latter and reduce their political umbrella. Clashes with settlers will be required to implement any peace deal based on a two-state solution and they are to be recognized as an essential tool of peacemaking directed against extremists who wish to quash peaceful compromises.

The Obama Administration’s attempt to freeze settlements has not only been too tame but also misguided. Past experience shows that Israeli settlements can either be expanded or shrunk, but they cannot be frozen. After the Oslo agreement of 1993, Israeli governments declared their intention of establishing no new settlements. Even so, since then the population of the existing settlement not only more than doubled, but according to the government’s own 2004 Sasson Report 105 “illegal settlements” were built. Their number now is up to about 130. It is conceivable that a handful of new settlements could have been built illegally, but the existence of dozens lays bare an unofficial governmental policy. Settlement leaders proudly own up to the fact they received help in building and maintaining their illegal outposts. Obama’s people should have demanded the removal of these settlements. After all, they are illegal even by Israeli standards, many are very small, Israeli governments repeatedly promised to do so, and their removal would show real commitment to a peace process and not just to peace negotiations.

Netanyahu also tried to divert attention from peacemaking with Abbas by demanding that the US concentrate on lining up its allies against Iran’s growing nuclear threat. But who are Israel’s best potential allies against Iranian nuclear weapons? The Palestinians. Their losses in lives from an Iranian nuclear attack would be only marginally smaller than Israel’s. As long as their national ambitions are thwarted, Palestinians cannot form a united front with Israel against radical Iranian ambitions. Right now Abbas refuses to run in the next presidential elections, and in his absence the Palestinian Authority, and the Fatah movement on which it is based, are likely to disintegrate.

The Obama Administration’s half-hearted and weak-kneed negotiations over the “freeze” with Netanyahu have led nowhere. In fact, the US now finds itself irrelevant in the face of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. . In fact, the US is losing its relevance and the center of gravity has already moved elsewhere, towards those who are willing to contemplate unilateral solutions. The EU, which debated a Swedish proposal to declare Jerusalem the capital of both Israel and a future Palestinian state, has adopted a more modest resolution in support of a negotiated solution to Jerusalem’s status. But the EU is not likely to continue refraining from a larger role in the absence of American sponsored negotiations. Salaam Fayad, the Palestinian Prime Minister, in absence of a real freeze and corresponding negotiations, plans to declare a Palestinian state in the 1967 boundaries and ask the UN to recognize it. Would the Obama Administration vote against the establishment of a Palestinian state whose creation has already been supported by President G.W. Bush? Permanent and unconditional backing to any Israeli folly or overreaching destroys Israel’s incentive to make peace. For the US to step back into effective engagement it might need to back the EU or the Fayad/UN plans.

Israeli leaders used to joke that a Palestinian supported motion to declare the earth flat would immediately garner 50 votes in the UN General Council; it still seems that no matter how Israel overreached it would automatically get one vote–the U.S. That should no longer be possible. If Obama wishes the US to become relevant again in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, his best course is to demand the removal of the semi-official illegal settlements and lift its knee-jerk support for Israel in the UN.

Gershon Shafir is Professor of Sociology at the University of California San Diego.

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3 Responses

  1. As long as the U.S. taxpayer funds Israel as they have for the last 30+/- years, the Israeli government will never change it's policies. We need to turn off the money to get different behavior.

  2. The question is not Obama. He, like the rest of us, knows and is against that! The question is how to rain the power of the Israel Lobby.

  3. Gershon, It's the Palestinians who are totally irrelevant in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Them and University Professors.

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