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What Is a “Settlement Freeze”?

In the many predictions of what’s going to happen tomorrow in the meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, a lot of attention is being paid to the possibility of Obama demanding a “settlement freeze”:

Settlements will be on the agenda when President Barack Obama, who supports Palestinian statehood, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is skeptical about it, meet at the White House next week. Vice President Joe Biden told Israel supporters in Washington on May 5 that settlement-construction must stop, the strongest statement on the subject so far from the administration.

The problem is the phrase “settlement freeze.” As a slogan it’s catchy, but in practice the discussion between the U.S. and the Israeli government is much more nuanced. There’s the “freeze” on new settlements (Israel doesn’t build any); there’s Israel’s commitment to remove illegal outposts (and the sub-issue of who determines what’s illegal); there’s the issue of building within existing settlements – those that are part of “settlement blocks” (which will presumably remain in Israeli hands according to the 2004 “Bush letter to Sharon”), and those that aren’t part of the blocks; there’s the issue of building only for “natural growth”; there’s, of course, the question of building in greater Jerusalem.

Thus, when Amr Mussa of the Arab League speaks about cessation of Israeli settlement building, it is one thing:

“They [Arab leaders] must not meet with [Netanyahu] if building in the settlements continues and if demolitions of (homes) in Arab villages continue. This will change the demographic balance and undermine our cause,” he said Sunday on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East.

Mussa wants to freeze everything — Jerusalem included. But when special international envoy Tony Blair talks about a freeze he presents a much more realistic approach, one similar to the position espoused in the Bush letter:

But in a way for the Palestinians … the biggest problem they have are the restrictions actually right in the heart of their territory. And some of these restrictions, I mean many of them relate to settlements rather than to the protection of Israel proper. So that’s why if they are expanded, and particularly if they are expanded in certain areas, they do change the realities in a way that at a certain point makes it hard to describe a Palestinian state in viable terms.

Blair wants a freeze – but is willing to focus on “certain areas.” Since no Israeli government can agree to freeze in Jerusalem, and most Israeli governments will acknowledge that there’s an Israeli commitment to evacuate outposts, the issues are: what areas should be off limits for new development and whether “natural growth” can be blocked. As I’ve mentioned before, Ehud Barak thinks not – and he isn’t the only left-of-center leader who feels that way. President Shimon Peres, visiting Washington last week, reportedly told Joe Biden that “Israel cannot instruct settlers in existing settlements not to have children or get married.”

The problem with discussing this nuanced topic in superficial terms is that whatever Netanyahu does or says – whatever concessions he makes – he will not be able to take the “freeze” off the table. If he evacuates outposts, if he prohibits all construction in all settlements behind the security fence, there will still be a lot more to freeze – and more to complain about. If Israel drags its feet on the issue it’s because Israeli leaders know this.


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