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Settlements, Borders and “Natural Growth”

The Obama administration has repeatedly demanded that Israel meet an obligation to stop “natural growth” in its settlements, but is unable itself to define that obligation in practical terms.  Meeting with reporters earlier this week, George Mitchell had this colloquy about the issue:

QUESTION: . . . can you give us just a definition of what the United States considers natural growth? What does that phrase mean in your mind?

MR. MITCHELL: There’s been no change in our policy. And there have been – there have been discussions on every aspect of the issue.

QUESTION: Well, what does natural growth mean? I mean, can you just use it in –

MR. MITCHELL: I’m constantly asked by editors, you know, please give a plain explanation of what natural growth is.

QUESTION: If it’s for your editor. (Laughter.)

MR. MITCHELL: Well, of course, one of the issues is that there is no universally used and accepted definition. The most common definition is by the number of births, but there are many variations of that. I’ve had numerous discussions with many Israeli and other officials, and there are almost as many definitions as there are people speaking. But I think the most commonly used measure is the number of births.  [Emphasis added].

It is hard to charge Israel with violating a Roadmap obligation regarding “natural growth” when everyone has a different definition, and the person handling the issue for the Obama administration cannot define it, even when constantly asked by the press to give a plain explanation.

It is clear that over the last five years Israel kept the U.S. informed of its interpretation of its “natural growth” obligation and set forth guidelines to which the U.S. did not object (permitting building as long as Israel did not build new settlements, expand the boundaries of existing ones, or provide subsidies for people to move there).  Mitchell suggests the “most common” measure of the obligation is to restrict the number of births, but he does not assert Israel ever agreed to such an unrealistic measure, nor does he explain why Israel’s own guidelines were not more reasonable.

There may not have been what Hillary Clinton calls an “enforceable” agreement regarding “natural growth,” but there appear to have been oral agreements and/or tacit understandings that the Obama administration has simply decided it does not want to observe.

The more important point, however, is that the major settlement blocs are located on strategic high ground, or in other militarily significant locations, which are undoubtedly part of the “defensible borders” promised to Israel in the 2004 Bush Letter — as part of an agreement relating to the Gaza disengagement that should be deemed “enforceable.”  There is no definition of “defensible borders” in the letter, but the one thing everyone knows it does not mean is the 1967 borders.

It is ludicrous for the U.S. to be negotiating with Israel on the number of births that can be permitted in areas already effectively promised to Israel as part of the borders necessary to defend itself — unless the Obama administration plans to break that promise as well.


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