Analysis: How Obama won over the settlers

Once a vocal critic of Israeli settlements, Obama is expected to be silent on the issue during his visit to the region.

Israel to build 600 new homes in a settlement of Shilo
Many of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's new coalition partners favour expanding settlements [EPA]

Shilo, Occupied West Bank – It is hard to imagine US President Barack Obama getting a warm reception here, an Israeli settlement deep in the occupied West Bank, closer to Jordan than the “green line” delineating Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

The US president was sharply critical of Israeli settlements in the first months after taking office. “It is time for these settlements to stop,” he said in his so-called address to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009. Pressure from his administration forced Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to approve a partial settlement freeze later that year.

But four years later, Obama’s first trip to Israel starting this Wednesday is being greeted largely with a shrug. Students from Ariel, one of the largest settlements in the West Bank, are planning an anti-Obama protest, because the US State Department pointedly refused to invite any students from Ariel’s university to an Obama speech in Jerusalem.

Beyond that, though, it was hard to find much criticism of Obama over several days of interviews in Israeli settlements. Most settlers seemed to believe he has given up on trying to play a central role in brokering an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

“When it comes to Israel, he hasn’t really served much of a function in the last four years,” said David Joel, a resident of Shilo originally from Atlanta. “Everything’s basically stalled. And in a way, it’s a good thing.”

Obama promised in Cairo to pursue a two-state solution “with all the patience that the task requires”, but his patience proved short-lived.

After an abortive attempt to restart direct negotiations in 2010, he largely stopped talking about the “peace process”. He has met nearly a dozen times with Netanyahu, but aides to both men say the conversation has been largely focused on Iran.

He may barely mention the subject when he addresses the Israeli public this week. Obama met with Jewish leaders in Washington earlier this month and said he was planning to “listen” while in Jerusalem, not to lecture.

“Listen, the priorities are Iran first, Egypt second, because it’s the most important Arab country, Syria, Turkey,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “And if they have time? They’ll talk about Palestinians.”

‘Packed with settlers’

President Obama is a very intelligent person, and somewhere in the middle of his first term, he understood that his dream to achieve a final-status solution is just unattainable.”

– Dani Dayan, former chairman of Yesha Council

In part this is a reflection of political realities in Israel. Netanyahu is keen to avoid a repeat of 2010, when the interior ministry embarrassed US Vice President Joe Biden by announcing 1,600 new settler homes in Ramat Shlomo just hours after Biden landed in Tel Aviv. Earlier this month, he reportedly ordered a freeze on new construction, at least until after Obama’s visit.

But the new Israeli government sworn in on Monday appears to be one of the most pro-settlement in history. The new housing minister, Uri Ariel, said in a television interview this weekend that settlement construction would continue apace.

“The government will build in Judea and Samaria more or less as it has done previously,” Ariel told Channel 10, using the biblical name for the occupied West Bank. “I see no reason to change it.”

Indeed, the composition of the new Israeli government makes it almost impossible to consider a settlement freeze. The defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, is an outspoken advocate for settlement growth – and his office controls the pace of construction. Ariel lives in a settlement, as do the probable foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and his deputy Ze’ev Elkin.

And one of Netanyahu’s key coalition partners is Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home party, who supports a plan to annex most of the West Bank.

“[The coalition] is packed with settlers, and has given the settlers portfolios that would expand the settler priorities,” said Yossi Alpher, who was an adviser on the peace process to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “[Jewish Home] could bring down the government if it goes too far on negotiations with the Palestinians.”

All of this has settlers in the West Bank optimistic that the new government will allow them to keep building – and that Obama won’t say much on the subject during his visit to Israel.

“The settlement enterprise has been going strong since the 1970s,” said Aviela Deitch, a resident of Migron, a so-called “illegal outpost” north of Jerusalem which was demolished last year by the Israeli government because it was built without permission. “It’s nothing that is going to be wiped off the map so quickly.”

Asked whether he would push for a new settlement freeze in an interview broadcast on Israel’s Channel 2 earlier this week, Obama would not give a direct answer. “I think we’re past the point where we should be even talking about preconditions and steps and sequences,” he said.

“President Obama is a very intelligent person, and somewhere in the middle of his first term, he understood that his dream to achieve a final-status solution is just unattainable,” said Dani Dayan, a former chairman of the Yesha Council, an umbrella group representing settlers. “I don’t think that he’s changed his mind.”

‘Israeli obligations’

Without forcing Israel to halt construction in the settlements, it is difficult to see how Obama could persuade the PA to return to negotiations.

I don’t need any so-called confidence-building measures from Israel. I need them to look at their agreements and implement their obligations.”

– Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator

“Without saying that he accepts two states on 1967, what’s the point?” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. “That’s the problem. We have a government in Israel that is working so hard to erase the 1967 lines.”

Media reports have suggested that Netanyahu is considering a range of “confidence-building measures” – like releasing long-time Palestinian prisoners. One report suggested that Israel might try to woo the PA by sending 700 new assault rifles to its security forces.

None of these have actually happened – and even if they did, Erekat and other Palestinian officials said they would have no impact on negotiations.

“We’re willing to resume negotiations immediately. When we say Israel must stop settlements… these are not Palestinian demands, these are Israeli obligations,” Erekat said.

“I don’t need any so-called confidence-building measures from Israel. I need them to look at their agreements and implement their obligations.”

Perhaps Obama’s shift also reflects domestic public opinion: A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week found that 69 percent of Americans think the US should “leave [negotiations] to the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves”.

Ironically, then, the president who vowed to work tirelessly for a two-state solution might be remembered as the one who ended America’s central role in pushing for negotiations.

“Every American president has walked the path to try to reach a comprehensive agreement,” Dayan said. “But 20 years after [the Oslo Accords], whoever still says that the two-state solution is still viable, the burden of proof is on them.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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