The Settlement Rift

Sunday, June 7, 2009

IN THE WEEKS before President Obama's Cairo address to the Muslim world, his administration opened a striking public breach with the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu. Even aside from any possible usefulness for courting Arab opinion, this was probably necessary. Mr. Netanyahu, who has refused to publicly support Palestinian statehood and insisted that Israeli settlement expansion will continue, was in need of a wake-up call. So the president has said repeatedly that he expects Israel to start moving toward a two-state solution, and he and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have bluntly insisted that all Israeli settlement activity stop. The medicine has had its effect: Israeli media are full of talk of the "crisis" between Washington and Jerusalem and of the fateful choice that Mr. Netanyahu must make between good relations with Washington and the hard-line ideology of his Likud party.

The question is whether the administration will allow Mr. Netanyahu the room to side with Mr. Obama, should he choose to do so. According to some officials in his government, there is much the Israeli leader may be willing to do to mend the rift. What he almost certainly will not do, however, is abandon the position of previous Israeli governments -- accepted in practice by both the Bush and Clinton administrations -- that some "natural growth" must be allowed in existing settlements.

Mr. Obama's Middle East envoy, George J. Mitchell, first called for an end to "natural growth" in 2001, when he headed a Middle East commission. Ms. Clinton publicly committed the Obama administration to the demand in a recent interview with al-Jazeera, saying "we want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth -- any kind of settlement activity." There are some good reasons for this position: Previous Israeli governments have violated their own rules about the limits of "natural growth"; they have also failed to fulfill repeated promises to dismantle those settlements that Israel itself has deemed illegal.

The problem is that no Israeli government -- not Mr. Netanyahu's, not even one led by the current opposition -- is likely to agree to a total construction ban. By insisting on one, the administration risks bogging itself down in a major dispute with its ally, while giving Arab governments and Palestinians a ready excuse not to make their own concessions. Meanwhile, the practical need for a total settlement freeze is debatable. Palestinian negotiators have already conceded that many of the towns will be annexed to Israel in any final deal; so did former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

A good compromise is achievable. Mr. Netanyahu should publicly acknowledge that the peace process will lead to Palestinian statehood, and should adopt a series of measures curtailing settlements. He should quickly dismantle those deemed illegal, end all government subsidies, prohibit the territorial expansion of all settlements, stop new construction in those outside Israel's West Bank fence and agree to a monitoring mechanism that will prevent cheating. Mr. Obama can reasonably accept that as a freeze, while not requiring that not a single brick be laid in any of the more than 120 West Bank communities. Then he can turn to the equally important task of pressing Palestinian leaders and Arab states for measures that match Israel's actions.

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