By Glenn Kessler and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 24, 2009
The Obama administration is pressing the Israeli government to halt the expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas, U.S. and Israeli officials said, seeking a visible symbol of progress on peace that might inspire Arab states to consider normalizing relations with Jerusalem. The administration's effort is being accompanied by greater willingness by U.S. lawmakers to complain publicly about settlements, but it has been complicated by an unwritten agreement on the issue between Israel and the United States reached during the Bush administration.
President Obama discussed settlements with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during the prime minister's visit last Monday, telling reporters afterward, "Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward." National security adviser James L. Jones and peace envoy George J. Mitchell also raised the issue forcefully, including making specific requests, in a separate meeting with Netanyahu, Israeli officials said.
In blunt comments on the Qatar-based news channel al-Jazeera on Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said: "We want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth -- any kind of settlement activity. That is what the president has called for."
"Natural growth" refers to population expansion as a result of births, adoptions and the like -- a position successive Israeli governments have rejected, though it is an Israeli obligation in the 2003 peace plan known as the "road map." The Bush administration accommodated Israeli concerns with a secret understanding that allowed for growth in settlements that Israel hopes to keep in any peace deal with the Palestinians.
There is also growing impatience on Capitol Hill with such settlement expansion. At a hearing in February, Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the pro-Israel chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee panel on the Middle East, equated "terrorism and the march of settlements" as part of a pattern of "shallow calculation and venal self-interest" through which "the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is finally rendered impossible."
At the same hearing, another strong advocate of Israel, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), declared: "The Palestinians have enormous responsibilities, but the notion that Israel can continue to expand settlements, whether it be through natural growth or otherwise, without diminishing the capacity of a two-state solution is both unrealistic, and, I would respectfully suggest, hypocritical."
During meetings with congressional leaders this week, Netanyahu was stunned by the "harsh and unequivocal statements" with which lawmakers complained about the settlements, according to an account in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. The newspaper said that although the prime minister tried to highlight the threat of Iran in his talks, lawmakers instead returned repeatedly to the issue of settlements, leading his entourage to conclude that the message had been coordinated with the Obama administration.
Wexler, in an interview, said he warned Netanyahu a week before his visit that the mood had changed in Washington. "In order for the president to extract from the king of Saudi Arabia a substantive down payment on the normalization of relations with Israel, settlements had to be addressed in a serious manner," he said he told the prime minister. "Netanyahu was confronted with that sentiment in Washington when he came."
While in Washington, Netanyahu argued that Israel already dismantled settlements in the Gaza Strip, going beyond the road map, and was rewarded with the takeover of Gaza by the Hamas militant group and hundreds of rockets raining on Israeli towns, Israeli sources said. Still, shortly after he returned to Israel, the government tore down an unauthorized outpost, Maoz Esther. Israel is committed under the road map to remove about 26 such outposts, typically small groups of rudimentary structures with a few families. Settlers began rebuilding Maoz Esther almost immediately.
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said there are no plans for a full settlement freeze. "The issue of settlements is a final status issue, and until there are final status arrangements, it would not be fair to kill normal life inside existing communities," he said.
Regev said the Israeli government is relying on "understandings" between former president George W. Bush and former prime minister Ariel Sharon that some of the larger settlements in the occupied West Bank would ultimately become part of Israel, codified in a letter that Bush gave to Sharon in 2004. In an interview with The Washington Post last year, Sharon aide Dov Weissglas said that in 2005, when Sharon was poised to remove settlers from Gaza, the Bush administration arrived at a secret agreement -- not disclosed to the Palestinians -- that Israel could add homes in settlements it expected to keep, as long as the construction was dictated by market demand, not subsidies.
Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser who negotiated the arrangement with Weissglas, confirmed the deal in an interview last week. "At the time of the Gaza withdrawal, there were lengthy discussions about how settlement activity might be constrained, and in fact it was constrained in the later part of the Sharon years and the Olmert years in accordance with the ideas that were discussed," he said. "There was something of an understanding realized on these questions, but it was never a written agreement."
Regev said Israeli and U.S. negotiators are discussing the degree to which the terms of the 2004 letter will apply under the new administration, but U.S. officials indicated that Obama wants to move beyond the 2004 letter and hold Israel to its commitments under the road map. "The bottom line is we expect all the parties in the region to honor their commitments, and for the Israelis, that means a stop to settlements, as the president said," a senior administration official said.
Schneider reported from Jerusalem.