An interesting exercise, made easily possible today by the magic of the internet, is a search of news articles on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process over time.
The most central and persistent theme is the construction of illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. During intifadas, not during intifadas, during peace talks, not during peace talks, it didn’t matter. For the Israelis, every year was a good year to build more settlements.
What has changed dramatically is the reality on the ground, represented by both the number of settlers and settlements. Another change, clearly traced below, has been in the position of the United States toward the settlement issue.
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In the early 1990s, Secretary of State James Baker led the Bush Administration’s charge and was “negotiating with Arab countries on the wording of a new United Nations Security Council resolution that would criticise Israeli settlements in occupied Arab territories as a breach of international law.”
Baker took an almost unrecognisably strong position with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in comparison with Secretary Kerry today. At the time, Baker’s position was that “all growth in new and existing settlements in the occupied territories must halt before the United States would consider guaranteeing $400m in desperately needed loans for new Soviet immigrant housing.”
That was the last time a US Secretary of State actually conditioned US aid on Israel changing its colonial behavior. Fast forward a few years to the Clinton Administration. In this episode, US Secretary of State is played by Madaline Albright and Israeli Prime Minister is played by Benjamin Netanyahu. This from September of 1997:
“Mr. Netanyahu surprised Ms. Albright this week by announcing that he would build 300 more homes in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, despite her recent call for a ”time out” in such settlement construction. ”I am calling on the Prime Minister to honor the time out,” Ms. Albright said angrily on Thursday…Asked whether he would consider Ms. Albright’s request for a settlement freeze, Mr. Netanyahu said, ”I don’t see anyone suggesting that construction be stopped in Arab communities that have natural growth as well.'”
Time-outs? The US’s method for enforcing its position on Israeli Settlements went from conditioning aid to tactics usually reserved for scolding 6-year-olds.
It didn’t improve over time even though the number of Israeli settlers continued to grow. By the time the George W. Bush administration rolled into town, it had accepted Netanyahu’s position and internalised it, making it part of US policy. In August of 2004:
“The Bush administration, moving to lend political support to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at a time of political turmoil, has modified its policy and signaled approval of growth in at least some Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, American and Israeli officials say. In the latest modification of American policy, the administration now supports construction of new apartments in areas already built up in some settlements, as long as the expansion does not extend outward to undeveloped parts of the West Bank, according to the officials.”
Obama’s White House completed the metamorphosis from the US stance two decades earlier by taking the complete opposite stance from Baker at the United Nations. In February of 2011, “the Obama administration vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution on Friday condemning Israeli settlement building in occupied territory as illegal, choosing not to alienate Israel and risking the anger of Arabs.”
With each passing year, with every new settlement and settler, the US position on settlements softened and ultimately changed to meet the Israeli position. The evolving reality on the ground, imposed by Israel, became the new reference point for American policy. In short, Israel used the past two decades to maximise their position, entrench themselves further in the West Bank and forced the US to adjust.
Though both Baker and Shamir left the scene in the early nineties after changes in their respective governments, it is clear that Shamir and his ideology stuck around while Baker’s philosophy was dismissed. In fact, things evolved exactly according to Shamir’s wishes. The Times reported in 1992:
“Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was quoted in a published interview today as saying he wanted to drag out peace talks with the Palestinians for a decade while vastly increasing the number of Jewish settlers in Israeli-occupied territories.
Had he held on to his office instead of being defeated this week in Israel’s national election, Mr. Shamir reportedly said, “I would have conducted negotiations on autonomy for 10 years and in the meantime we would have reached half a million people” in the West Bank.
There are now about 110,000 settlers in that territory, which the Prime Minister referred to by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria.”
Today there are nearly 600,000 Israeli settlers living beyond the green line. Shamir’s dream came true in large part thanks to the acquiescence of US policy that only prolonged the Palestinian nightmare.
The question is, what will it take to wake Washington up, perhaps 1 million settlers in the West Bank?
At this pace, we will find out the answer to that question soon.
Yousef Munayyer is a writer and political analyst based in Washington, DC. He is currently the executive director of the Palestine Centre in Washington, DC.
You can follow Yousef on Twitter @YousefMunayyer