Immediately after the UN voted last week to vilify Israel, Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security advisor, held a conference call to argue that the Obama administration was motivated by its “grave concerns” about “the continued pace” of Israeli settlement activities. He asserted that the administration could not “in good conscience” veto the resolution. Here is how Rhodes quantified the administration’s “grave concerns”:
[S]ince 2009, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has increased by more than 100,000 to nearly 400,000. … There are now nearly 900,000 — I’m sorry, 90,000 settlers living east of the separation barrier that was created by Israel itself. And the population of these distant settlements has grown by 20,000 since 2009.
The figure of 100,000 sounds significant until you realize that 80 percent of it has been in the settlement blocs “everyone knows” Israel will retain in any conceivable peace agreement. The 20,000 person increase east of the separation barrier, established to stop the wave of Palestinian mass murders against Israelis, translates into less than one percent of the population in the disputed territories, over a period of eight years.
It is ludicrous to argue that the settlements are an “obstacle to peace,” because they were not an obstacle to offering the Palestinians a state on three separate occasions: (a) in July 2000 at Camp David; (b) in the Clinton Parameters six months later; and (c) in the Olmert offer at the end of the one-year Annapolis Process in 2008. Each time, the Palestinians rejected a state on substantially all of the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in Jerusalem. Since then–as Rhodes’ numbers show–the vast majority of Israeli settlement activity has been within settlement blocs that no one can realistically expect Israel to dismantle.
During the Bush administration, the U. S. and Israel agreed on a formula for settlements–precisely so that they could not become an obstacle to peace. They agreed to apply a “Google Test”: building could continue within the boundaries of existing settlements, but not outside them, so that construction would not affect the amount of land available for a Palestinian state, which was more than 90 percent of the disputed territories (before considering a land swap). It was the Obama administration that reneged on that agreement in 2009 and made an issue out of something that had already been resolved.
In any event, Israel declared a ten-month freeze on new construction in the West Bank in 2009-2010–an action deemed “unprecedented” by both the Secretary of State (Hillary Clinton) and the administration’s Middle East envoy (George Mitchell). It resulted in nothing from the Palestinians. And even after the Obama administration reneged on the assurances to Israel in the 2004 Bush letter, and even after the ten-month freeze produced nothing, Israel continued to observe the Google Test in the vast majority of its construction building, as the administration’s own eight-year 20,000 figure demonstrates.
The real obstacle, as Michael Mandelbaum showed in his landmark essay in the May 2016 issue of COMMENTARY, “The Peace Process is an Obstacle to Peace,” is the Palestinian refusal to accept a Jewish state within any boundaries, much less defensible borders. Until the Palestinians endorse “two states for two peoples”–something the Palestinians have not yet done–the process will be stuck on side issues such as settlements. Until the Palestinians declare that a Palestinian state is an end-of-claims solution, and not simply a step in further prosecuting a specious “right of return,” the Palestinians have not even put peace on the table.
There has been much speculation about the Obama administration’s motives in deserting Israel at the UN and orchestrating support for the resolution behind the scenes. There are three things, however, that we do know: the administration did not act out of “conscience;” its “concerns” are not grave; and they involve an obstacle the administration created for itself.