The decision of the Obama administration to issue a full throttle condemnation of Israel over new housing in the West Bank is an ill omen for the post-election conduct of the outgoing president when it comes to Palestinian efforts at the United Nations in November and December.
The administration’s complaint is focused on the announcement of a new development with 98 houses in the West Bank. Unlike the new neighborhoods built in Jerusalem since the Six Day War or the settlement blocs that are adjacent to the 1967 borders, the homes are in an area that might be expected to be part of a Palestinian state in the event of a two-state solution peace deal. Washington is also offended at the timing since it comes just after President Obama’s visit to the country for the funeral of Shimon Peres. The administration is trying to spin this as an “insult” to the president in the way it attempted to portray a routine housing announcement as a slight to Vice President Biden in 2010. The White House alleges that the decision contradicts private and public assurances to the president that no “new” settlements would be built. Administration spokespersons are also trying to portray the decision as evidence of ingratitude since it comes weeks after the signing of a new long-term aid agreement between the U.S. and Israel.
There’s nothing new about the U.S. condemning Israeli building in the West Bank. That long predates Obama. The main distinction between this administration and its predecessors has been the president’s willingness to treat Jerusalem as if it were a remote hilltop settlement. That’s a point that was re-emphasized when the White House transcript of the president’s remarks at Shimon Peres funeral was amended to re-emphasize the American position that Jerusalem—even the Western portion where the Mount Herzl cemetery is located—is not recognized as part of Israel. What makes this attack on Israel’s policies different is the timing and the circumstances.
The new homes do not constitute a “new” settlement by any reasonable definition. They are within the municipal boundaries of Shilo, a sizable settlement that dates back to the 1970s, not last week. For the last eight years, the administration has sought to label every new individual apartment build in Jerusalem or the West Bank as a “new” settlement rather than simply a new building in an existing community. No one would consider a couple of new apartment buildings in an American town a new city but that’s the way Israel’s critics speak every time a Jew puts up a tool shed in the West Bank. Moreover, as long as the Palestinians refuse to negotiate peace or accept offers of statehood and independence, expecting Israel to squeeze existing communities by banning all building is not reasonable.
That’s especially true in Shilo, a place of enormous historical and biblical importance to Jews; it is mentioned in the story of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham as well as the site of the Tabernacle where ancient Israel worshipped. As an establishment settlement as well as site of major archeological digs, it’s also exactly the sort of place that ought to be allowed to stay intact even if a Palestinian state were to be established, assuming that the Palestinian Authority’s goal is not, as their apologists insist it isn’t, to create a Jew-free country.
What’s more, the administration knows very well the need to put those houses there stems not from an expansionist urge but a desire to uphold the law and eliminate settlements that were built without the sanction of Israeli law. The new homes in Shilo are part of a compromise solution that would allow the Israeli government to evict settlers from Amona, a settlement that was built on land owned by Palestinians rather than public or Jewish-owned land, as is the case with legal West Bank Jewish communities like Shilo. The courts have ruled that the Amona settlers have to go and it’s necessary that the government provide them with a place to go to. What Prime Minister Netanyahu is doing here happens to be exactly what the Americans want him to do in tearing down Amona, so it’s more than a little disingenuous of Obama to treat this decision as an insult or an effort to flout Washington’s wishes. That also undermines the notion that Israel is breaking its word to Obama since the U.S. was well aware of the Amona compromise plan.
So even if you are opposed to West Bank settlements and believe in the need for a two-state solution, the argument that this building plan is an example of the Israelis being ingrates determined to stick it to Obama falls flat. To the contrary, the kind of inflammatory rhetoric used in the administration statement has all the earmarks of yet another ginned-up spat intended to create more distance between the U.S. and Israel.
If there is anything suspicious about the timing, it relates to the Americans’ manufactured umbrage. If the president is planning on leaving office with one final, devastating parting shot at Israel and Netanyahu, he needs a casus belli to justify betraying an ally at a United Nations that is already prejudiced against Israel and riddled with anti-Semitism. The real story isn’t Netanyahu’s alleged insult but what might be Obama’s careful planning for a devastating blow to the U.S.-Israel alliance.