This opinion piece appears at the same time as a flurry of trans-Atlantic statements were made on the settlement question. Israeli cabinet ministers spoke publicly in response to the meetings between Netanyahu and Obama about a week ago. The public statements were to the effect that Israel would not bow to US pressure on settlements, would not have its policy dictated from Washington and presented arguments similar to the one in the YNet opinion piece: settlements are not the problem. The cabinet member, who was speaking to Israeli television also commented that Israel would "...not permit illegal settlement..."
Hillary Clinton, speaking earlier in the week, was equally blunt and unequivocal. She called for an immediate freeze on all types of settlement activities, including what Israelis have termed natural growth.
Both these strong statements, however, from Israel and the US are contradicted by Netanyahu's request to Obama to extend an informal Israel US agreement on settlements made between Bush and previous Israeli Prime Ministers. The agreement divides all settlement activities into four types. The first type are settlements linked to Jerusalem, which Israel insists be unencumbered in any way. The second type are settlements in major existing blocks, which will be allowed to extend beyond their current borders, so long as all new developments are directly adjacent to existing developments. The third category of settlements would be isolated settlements outside of the major blocks which would not be allowed to extend beyond their current borders. The fourth type of settlement are the unauthorized outposts, the ones Israel terms illegal which under the agreement would have to be evacuated. The agreement also prohibits the authorization of any new settlements by Israel.
This request from Netanyahu is interesting because it contradicts both his own cabinet minister who says that policy will not be dictated from Washington and settlements are not a problem. Yet, here is an Israeli Prime Minister asking a US president for permission to conduct certain activities in territory it controls. It also contradicts Clinton though because rather than halting all settlement activities, this agreement would actually have the effect of explicitly allowing some.
Israel seems to be playing hardball on the unauthorized settlements though. Defense minister and Labour party member of the coalition government Barak kept his promise to the settlers that he would remove illegal outposts by force when Israeli police destroyed such an outpost earlier this week (a "photo essay" of the removal is here.) Barak described the dismantling of the outpost as a question of upholding the rule of law, but many in Israel were quick to criticize it as bowing to US pressure.
It's most probable that the dismantling of the unauthorized settlements was not related to US pressure. Barak has a Labour constituency to represent (not that he is insincere about the Labour position) but removing the settlements fit both within his mandate as defense minister and within the platform of his party. Combined with the statements he had made earlier to the settlers, it seems like this was a decision made without any additional or special US pressure.
More interesting is the question this agreement Netanyahu seeks to renew with the US. Somewhat more information on the agreement that previously existed between the two countries is here. What is still not explicit, however, is that if Israel were to limit itself in terms of settlement activity and make these promises to the US, what was it receiving in return? Was it only obliging itself to the US or was this agreement a two-way street? There's no clear answer to this question and as the article linked two just above points out, much of these previously existing agreements were agreed to orally and so there's no paper trail to see who gave what. That being said, it's possible to surmise that what was being agreed upon here were the rules of fair play. Israel receives a great deal of support from the US, both diplomatically and financially. This agreement was likely the parameters within which Israel could act without incurring pressure from the US on this issue. Violate this agreement with the US, and Israel could hear US diplomats making harsher statements, not vetoing or abstaining from UN resolutions unfavorable to Israel at the UN security Council or General Assembly (as the case may be) or even the application of less obvious pressure. Now, with US officials calling for a complete freeze on all settlement activities, it will be very interesting to see if Obama continues with the policies of his predecessors on this matter or if he calls for new rules of the game.
Settlements are not the obstacle to peace between Israel and Palestinians but they are an obstacle. It's true that there will be no holding hands and singing and rainbows when all the settlers are gone and that peace will burst forth. It's also true that settlements can and have been evacuated in the past--in Gaza where the results were decidedly negative and in the Sinai peninsula, where peace remains--and so they should not be viewed as irreversible facts on the ground. They are in no way, however, helpful. They impose a heavy security and financial burden on Israel, they add fuel to anger against Israel both in the middle east and around the world and in some cases, settlers have proven to be less than hospitable neighbours to the Palestinians they live near (granted, the Palestinians are not good neighbours to the settlers either.) In any final agreement, many of the settlements will have to go and a freeze on the ones that exist is a good idea. It will show Israeli commitment to peace, place Israel in the good graces of the new US administration, help reduce the security burden the settlements represent to the country and begin to change the facts on the ground. If, however, any settlements are to be removed, the lessons of the past have been that this cannot be a unilateral withdrawal. The results of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was rocket attacks. The results of negotiated withdrawal from Sinai has been peace.