America’s settlement folly

[With the backdrop of the settlements and East Jerusalem dispute, this is the last in a series of three pieces looking at historical precedents and how they might inform the current debate. The series also includes pieces by Gideon Lichfield and Leon Hadar.] Reactions to the recent diplomatic squabble between the U.S. and Israel over ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

[With the backdrop of the settlements and East Jerusalem dispute, this is the last in a series of three pieces looking at historical precedents and how they might inform the current debate. The series also includes pieces by Gideon Lichfield and Leon Hadar.]

Reactions to the recent diplomatic squabble between the U.S. and Israel over building in East Jerusalem display a startling lack of historical memory. More than 30 years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin insisted on building beyond the green line, and President Jimmy Carter proved unable to stop him. President Barack Obama risks a repeat performance. With the Netanyahu government's announcement to build 1,600 more housing units in Ramat Shlomo, the consequences of U.S. inaction will prove even more damaging than in Carter's time. Given a shift in American priorities, Obama can't afford to stand down.

[With the backdrop of the settlements and East Jerusalem dispute, this is the last in a series of three pieces looking at historical precedents and how they might inform the current debate. The series also includes pieces by Gideon Lichfield and Leon Hadar.]

Reactions to the recent diplomatic squabble between the U.S. and Israel over building in East Jerusalem display a startling lack of historical memory. More than 30 years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin insisted on building beyond the green line, and President Jimmy Carter proved unable to stop him. President Barack Obama risks a repeat performance. With the Netanyahu government’s announcement to build 1,600 more housing units in Ramat Shlomo, the consequences of U.S. inaction will prove even more damaging than in Carter’s time. Given a shift in American priorities, Obama can’t afford to stand down.

Back in 1977, Carter recognized that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was central to broader regional peace. He got to work immediately upon taking office. Yet two days after his initial meeting with Begin, Carter was astonished to hear that the Israeli prime minister had returned home and legalized three West Bank settlements, declaring them "permanent." These settlements had existed before Begin’s victory, but the declaration of permanence secured government subsidies and attempted to assert Israeli claims across the green line. Begin cast this bid to expand Israel’s territory in religious and nationalist terms, receiving critical support from then Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon. Together they established a matrix of control in the West Bank that gnawed away at the foundation of a viable future Palestinian state.

Ultimately, Carter failed to prevent Begin’s expansionist excesses. Several days after the signing of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978, Begin proclaimed on U.S. television that Israel would remain in the West Bank indefinitely and continue its settlement program. This declaration flew in the face of the full settlement moratorium that Carter believed Israel had agreed on at Camp David. Begin denied he had ever accepted more than a three-month freeze for the duration of the Egyptian-Israeli talks.

What did Carter do? He bowed out of a confrontation, declaring the controversy "just an honest difference of opinion." Privately, he felt misled by Begin’s evasive maneuvers on the settlement issue and the wider devaluing of autonomy talks to address the Palestinian question. Two weeks later, Carter weakly chastised Israel, saying the settlements in occupied territory were "illegal" and an "obstacle to peace," but it was too little too late. Looming 1980 elections, an alienating confrontation with American Jewish leaders, and a host of other complicated foreign policy challenges forced the administration’s hand. Since Carter’s clash with Begin, settlements have only grown in number and size, undermining the very possibility of a two-state solution to end the conflict.

Today, a number of Israel’s supporters on Capitol Hill are voicing dismay at an increasingly vocal confrontation between two close allies over the issue. Sen. Joseph Lieberman called Obama’s angry reaction to the East Jerusalem plans "unnecessary" and "destructive of our shared national interest."

But these objections seem anachronistic at best. Lieberman may not recognize a new reality on the ground, but President Obama certainly does. Changes in the international context mean that the United States must reorder its priorities in the Middle East. With two wars being conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan and a difficult confrontation brewing over Iran, America is committed to the region in ways it never has been before. The U.S. can no longer afford to stand by as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict jeopardizes broader regional concerns.

As Gen. David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee shortly after Vice President Biden’s visit, tensions over Israel-Palestine have "an enormous effect on the strategic context in which we operate." So while Netanyahu seems to be borrowing a page from Begin’s 1970s playbook, the reality is entirely different in 2010.

Domestically, things have changed as well, making it easier for Obama to voice his principled opposition. The American Jewish community’s reluctant but ultimately steadfast support for Begin’s position triumphed over internal criticism of settlements in the 1970s. But such unity belongs to the past. American Jews increasingly recognize that the free hand George W. Bush extended to Israel was counterproductive to reaching peace. In particular, there has been a generational shift among younger American Jews. Voices of dissent against the expansion of Israeli settlements are now firmly in the mainstream- as evidenced by a rise of vocal, dovish pro-Israel groups like J Street.

When asked about the recent U.S.-Israel flare-up, President Obama remarked that "friends are going to disagree sometimes." It sounded awfully similar to Carter’s "difference of opinion" line.

Given the damaging history of settlement construction and previous American failures to stop it, this is a disagreement that needs to be addressed. There must be a concerted effort to halt Israel’s unsustainable policy of continued building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This construction poisons the climate in which proximity talks can be held and pre-judges a final status agreement. If the last three decades should have taught American policymakers one thing, it’s this: standing idly by as settlement building continues apace doesn’t advance the possibility of peace. It only undermines it.

Seth Anziska is a doctoral candidate in international history at Columbia University and a Wexner Foundation Graduate Fellow in Jewish Studies. 

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