Big test of settlement attitudes

If Barack Obama means business, we will now see if our criticism of settlement policy was merely token

By Jonathan Freedland, June 4, 2009

By all accounts, Barack Obama is a keen and skilful poker player. That’s useful to know because he’s about to call the bluff of Israel and many of its supporters around the world.

That much became clear last week when Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, told Israel that the President “wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions” but an end to all settlement expansion on the West Bank. Period.

Obama himself has rammed the point home. He wants a “freeze on settlements”: no qualifiers.

Why is that calling Israel’s bluff? Because for years — no, for decades — all but the most hawkish friends of Israel have insisted that they have little sympathy for the settlers, implanting their red-roofed suburbs all over land won in 1967, territory which is now home to more than two million Palestinians and which, a worldwide consensus believes, will one day form the bulk of a Palestinian state.

Now we are about to discover if that stated opposition is genuine or if it was just for show. I do not doubt the sincerity of ordinary Jews on this point: a March poll found that 60 per cent of US Jews oppose settlement expansion. But their leaders might be a different story. It is possible that they have found it convenient not to defend the settlements out loud — even if, quietly, they have done nothing to oppose them.

That’s certainly how it has been in Israel. The likes of Ehud Barak and his Labour party have happily jetted around the world, nodding along as foreign governments have decried the settlements as “obstacles to peace”, to use the phrase that represented the official US view until George W Bush. But they have done almost nothing to remove those obstacles.

On the contrary, as former minister Amnon Rubinstein argued in the financial daily, Globes, this week, Labour has been a tacit enabler of the settlers (a fact that stretches back to the 1970s when Labour governments turned a blind eye to the first land-grabbers, seeing them as heirs to the founding chalutzim). Defence Minister Barak could have ordered the army to act against the settlers long ago, but he has chosen not to.

“Who is guarding these outposts? Who hooked some of them up to the national water and power grids?” asked Rubinstein. “Who if not the defence establishment, which Barak is responsible for?”

Now Obama is about to flush all this out. If Barak — and US Jewish leaders — stand against the President, we will know their long-stated opposition to the settlements was a fake.

That is not the only reason why this is a smart move by Obama. If he had allowed for “natural growth”, he’d have found the next three years consumed by endless arguments with Israeli officials over whether these 200 housing units or those 50 new apartments constituted expansion or natural growth.

Besides, the right of “natural growth” is a fiction. On the London street where I live, people can’t simply add a new wing to their house every time one of their adult children gets married and has children: there are zoning laws. Why shouldn’t these apply to West Bank settlers? They certainly apply rigorously inside Israel. Just ask the Arab citizens who are regularly denied permission to expand their towns for their natural growth — and whose homes are demolished if they build without the state’s blessing.

So Obama’s demand for a total freeze is right — and in Israel’s interest. Now he will have the credibility to ask more of the Arab states, whether he’s urging them to normalise relations with Israel or trying to forge a coalition against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Whether Jews and Israelis stand with him, or with the settlers, will reveal whether we’ve been telling the truth all these years — or only bluffing.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian

Last updated: 11:58am, June 4 2009