Apr 17, 2015

The Reason for the Discontent between the White House and the Israeli Government

Source: BBC News
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The reason for the discontent between the White House and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel is not related to personality or any competition for power and influence. The contention has to do with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and much of it is a result of the continuation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which remains occupied by Israel since the 1967 June War.  For decades the U.S. has played a vital role in attempts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  Every attempt at brokering peace has been followed by Israeli actions that undercut any efforts at peace in the long term.  This article is not about the mistakes of Palestinian leadership or the efforts of some Palestinian groups to undercut the peace process that would entail the acknowledgement of a permanent Israeli state. Neither is this article an effort to criticize justifiable Israeli reactions to attacks of terror on its people, or to criticize measures taken by the Israeli government to prevent or deter such attacks.  The discussion of settlements has very little, and perhaps nothing to do with the vital security needs of Israel.  In the context of peace negotiations, the settlements are a separate issue from the security argument, although the Israeli settlements themselves have indeed contributed to the need for greater security.  The settlements in the West Bank must be defended which increases Israeli security demands, a need created by Israelis, and at the same time foster greater anger on the part of Palestinians towards Israel.  I say that the settlements are not part of the security argument in the context of peace negotiations because Israel's security should be about securing Israel's borders and not settlements that were unnecessarily erected outside of Israel's borders, and which, instead of contributing to Israel's security, detract from it.

Origin and Location of the Settlements

Source: BBC News

In June of 1967, after only six days of fighting, Israel emerged victorious from a war with its neighboring Arab countries  who were resentful of Israel's creation in 1949.  The spoils of war gained by Israel were territories formally in the borders of those Arab states.  These territories included the West Bank, gained from Jordan; the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, gained from Egypt; and the Golan Heights, gained from Syria.  Today, Israel still occupies the West Bank, a territory which is the home of a substantial number of Palestinians, many of which live in refugee camps erected to house those that fled the 1949 Israeli Independence War.

Shortly after the war, the Israeli government began a policy of encouraging Israelis and Jews emigrating to the area to settle in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Gaza Strip settlements, which were fewer in number, have since been dismantled and the territory handed over to the Palestinians.  The occupation and settling of Israelis in the West Bank has continued to this day and with the financial encouragement of the Israeli government through subsidies.

Settlements as Barriers to Peace

The reasons the Israeli settlements are a barrier to peace are multiple.  First, the settlements are a de facto method of expanding Israel's borders into Palestinian land.  While Israel has not formally annexed the West Bank, as it did East Jerusalem, Israel has allowed and encouraged the settlement of its own people outside its official borders and into a land that Israel occupies.  This is in violation of international norms and international law that says a country must not attempt to transplant its own native population into a country or territory in which it is occupying as a result of war.  The settlement activity of the Israelis has deeply angered Palestinians who believe even more of their land is being taken by Israel and left them feeling hopeless in their dreams of statehood.  

Second, a "two-state solution" has been essential to ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or at least that has been the goal of peace brokers for the past several decades.  The "two-state solution" would mean the continuation of the state of Israel, but also the creation of a new Palestinian state, most likely out of the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  The settlements that have only grown since 1967 are increasingly making a Palestinian state impossible.  As can be seen in the map, the settlements, many of which resemble small cities with permanent structures, vary in size and are spread out across the West Bank.  The largest of course, the settlement blocks, are closer to the Western side, near and stemming out from the border between Israel and the West Bank.  Neither the Israeli government or the Israelis and Jews living in the settlements are willing to dismantle them.  For the most part, recent peace negotiations have kept the Israeli settlements intact.  If they are to stay intact and under Israeli control, the supposed Palestinian state that would be the end result of a peace agreement would be a nonviable state, with non-contiguous borders in some areas, that resembles more a slice of Swiss cheese than an actual country.  This can be seen in the graphic to the left which was a map created during the Oslo peace negotiations.

U.S. and International Frustration with Israel

Rather than freezing settlement building, which only serves to increase Palestinian and Arab anger , as well as increase the difficulty of offering Palestinians a viable state, Israel has continued to expand the settlements in the West Bank.  This has angered the international community, but especially the U.S. which has invested quite a bit of credibility, effort, money, time, and political capital into bringing peace to the region.  Also, recall that a great deal of Islamic terrorism perpetrated against the U.S. is a result of anger at the U.S. for supporting, or at least not stopping, Israeli actions deemed as harmful to Palestinians.  Therefore, the U.S. has a significant amount of "skin in the game".  

President Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000 with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (left) and leader of the Palestinian Authority Yasir Arafat (right)
Source: The Washington Post
Despite immense U.S. efforts to help the Israelis and Palestinians to end the fighting and the enormous aid given to Israel, the settlements have continued, as has the support of the Israeli government, both in rhetoric and in financial subsidy.  This has been quite a slap in the face of the U.S.   Recall that there have been several attempts to bring both sides to the table.  The only two attempts that had promise of producing a tangible result were the peace negotiations in Oslo, Norway in 1993, and the efforts of President Bill Clinton in 2000, known as "Camp David II". The previous Camp David peace effort under President Jimmy Carter, did not deal with the Palestinian issue, but did resolve the conflict between Israel and Egypt.  Since Camp David II, both Presidents George W. Bush (remember the "Road Map to Peace") and Barack Obama have sought to kick start negotiations, but to no avail.  The sides to the conflict seem to be too far apart, partly due to the settlements.  Also, as can be seen in the graphic, the settlements have only expanded, and in so doing have significantly decreased any possibility of peace and a Palestinian State, the main component of the "Two-State Solution".  Every year the settlements become even more permanent fixtures of Israeli dominance in the West Bank.  

The goal of the U.S. to bring peace in the region is an important one considering the enormous suffering of Jews historically, the suffering currently endured by both Israelis and Palestinians, the long friendship between Israel and the U.S., and the immense anger in the Arab world towards Israel and towards the U.S. as the main supporter of Israel.  Therefore, it comes as no shock to long time observers and students of this conflict that the frustration of U.S. administrations has built up and is no longer contained behind the scenes.  To ignore the role of Israel and only chastise Palestinians is a disservice to both Israelis and Palestinians, especially the thousands that have died and will continue to die in the absence of peace.

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