Cut Bibi Some Slack

Why Obama's hard line on Israeli settlements is counterproductive.

Amos Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images
Amos Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images

Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Israel’s prime minister on March 31. Within weeks, the Obama administration launched a high-profile public campaign to confront Israel’s new leader on the issue that most divides the two governments: Israel’s settlements in the West Bank.

It was an unusual way to welcome the new leader of a close friend of the United States. Why did the Obama team veer so sharply off the normal course? Diplomacy toward an ally normally begins with building relations of trust on areas of agreement, and only later engaging discreetly on issues where there are sharp differences. Why instead did the administration team roll out a campaign of diktats, beginning May 28 in front of cameras at a press conference with the Egyptian foreign minister, virtually nailing a decree to Netanyahu’s door announcing that President Obama "wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions," as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it. Why so dismissively brush aside understandings crafted by the George W. Bush’s administration, understandings that had achieved a significant reduction of settlement construction albeit not a total freeze? Why would an unnamed source in the administration boast to the Washington Post on June 30, "We have not changed our position at all, nor has the president authorized any negotiating room"?

One explanation for this bizarre behavior is "Yes, we can" syndrome — the prevailing belief in Washington that this president holds 99 percent of the cards and can get people to do things beyond what normally can be achieved. Even some in Jerusalem believe that Netanyahu cannot say "no" to Barack Obama, especially on the settlement issue where there Israel has little support in Congress and even the American Jewish community is divided and paralyzed.  

The theory that Obama holds the high cards rests on the results that George H.W. Bush got when he confronted a different Likud prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, over settlements in September 1991. Nine months after Bush threw down the settlements gauntlet, Israeli voters ejected Shamir and replaced him with Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin, opening the way to the Oslo accords.

But this comparison is misleading. Obama’s confrontation is taking place mere weeks after the formation of a new Israeli government, not months before an Israeli prime minister has to face his voters again. What’s more, Israeli voters have elected the most conservative Knesset in Israel’s history. The parties of the left — Labor and Meretz — had 56 seats in 1992, but they have shrunk to 16 seats today. The real pressure on Netanyahu in today’s Israel is from the right. If Obama hopes to invigorate the country’s moribund left, he’s in for a rude shock: the gains it would need to force either new elections or a different coalition more compliant to U.S. demands are daunting.

Moreover, the hawks have many ways to constrain and compel the prime minister. In fact, Netanyahu is in the opposite position of Shamir. Succumbing to U.S. pressure is the one thing that might bring Bibi down, but keeping the conservatives in his coalition offers him every prospect of serving a full term until the next scheduled Israeli election in 2013. Netanyahu can, and will, say "no" if his only choice is the one the Obama team is now offering: total capitulation.

Netanyahu does have the political strength to reaffirm previous compromises made by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert to limit natural growth. This includes the "construction line" principle that would restrict development to infill construction within already built-up areas while preventing further geographic expansion beyond the outer line of existing structures. But the Israeli prime minister does not have the legal authority, let alone the necessary political foundation, to impose an absolute and complete freeze on all construction in all settlements. Few in Israel are prepared to freeze construction in the "blocs," today primarily those on the Israeli side of the security fence, that the Clinton administration anticipated would be annexed to Israel as part of a land swap creating a Palestinian state. Nor does Netanyahu have either the legal authority or the support of the public to ban Jewish housing inside the juridical boundaries of Jerusalem, on land that might have been outside Israel’s borders before 1967 but was formally annexed to Israel a quarter century ago by the Jerusalem law of 1980.

The Obama administration would be smarter to play a more nuanced game and make the distinctions it is avoiding. Only a minority of Israelis support construction of housing in outlying settlements beyond Israel’s security fence, but construction in the blocs and especially in Jewish communities in Jerusalem is supported by the vast majority of the Israeli public and all the major political parties. Absolutist demands for a total freeze may win applause in the United States even from some in the U.S. Jewish community, but they go much too far to succeed in the real world.

If Obama’s purpose in authorizing this confrontation was to provide an incentive to the Palestinians and the moderate states in the Arab League to take the steps they need to take for peace, his policy is likely to fail on this measure as well. Reinforcing the long-standing belief in the Arab world that the United States can "deliver" Israel if it only has the will reduces Arab incentives to make concessions in direct negotiations with Israel, rather than increasing them. It is only natural for Arab leaders to conclude, "Why negotiate with the difficult Israelis, when you can get your American friends to do the work for you?" The American message should be exactly the reverse: "You have to negotiate with the Israelis. We cannot do it for you."

Netanyahu knows he will need to compromise on settlements, but he can do this only if Obama compromises too. An impasse on this issue certainly does not serve Israel’s interests, but it will not advance the goals of the Obama administration either. The U.S. president’s advisers need to see that, on settlements, like so many issues, the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.

Steven J. Rosen served for 23 years as a senior official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He is now the director of the Washington Project of the Middle East Forum.