Will the U.S. Stop Treating Settlement as a PR Problem?

In the summer of 1974, the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv received a cable from the State Department. The main office was concerned about press reports that Israel intended to expand settlements in the occupied territories. The cable complained of the "difficulties such publicity generates in U.S.-Arab relations." The reports "were most unhelpful to Middle East peace efforts." Foggy Bottom therefore wanted to know how Israel's Labor government "might be induced to turn off public comments on expanding settlements."

Two days later, Ambassador Kenneth Keating cabled back. He'd talked to Foreign Minister Yigal Allon, who said he was about to meet with the editors of the country's newspapers. Allon promised to ask them to play down "sensitive issues" connected to the negotiations that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was conducting between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Allon kindly "volunteered to add settlement to his list" of subjects to hush up, Keating wrote. The secretary could rest easy.

What's striking about those messages -- preserved in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland -- is that they say nothing about persuading Israel to stop building settlements. (Click here for a gallery of the cables.) Washington simply wanted to keep noise about them from sabotaging its peace efforts and its image in the Arab world. Never mind that West Bank settlement helped block an interim agreement between Israel and Jordan. The brief exchange of cables, surreal as it is, is just one example of a long tradition of half-hearted, half-attentive U.S. objections to Israeli settlement efforts -- from the soft-spoken response to the first settlements in 1967, through George W. Bush's 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon, accepting that "new realities on the ground" (read: major settlements) will prevent a return to the pre-1967 borders.

Today, it would seem, U.S.-Israeli relations have changed utterly since the cables of July 1974. The Obama administration has been demanding a complete freeze on settlement as an essential step toward negotiating a two-state solution. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- and his most loyal coalition partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- have no interest in playing down settlement expansion. In advance of U.S. envoy George Mitchell current visit to Israel to continue talks on the subject, Barak's media office announced last week that the defense minister had signed off on building a total of 455 new housing units in seven settlements. Since the West Bank is under military occupation, the defense minister's approval is required for settlement construction there. The in-America's-face timing and public announcement, of course, were entirely Barak and Netanyahu's choice.

Yet there are several lessons to be learned from the OK for new building -- and the first is that Netanyahu is confident that the traditional American approach hasn't really changed. The administration will object to new building, but not too harshly, the prime minister believes. Witness the understated White House response to the first reports that Israel would approve construction. "We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate," it said.

Israeli press reports consistently say that the U.S. has agreed to a "freeze" lasting only six to nine months, which won't apply to 2,500 homes already under construction in the occupied territories. (Barak has reportedly told Mitchell that the government doesn't have the legal power to stop such building; Israeli Supreme Court precedents belie that claim.) Those earnest descriptions of the U.S. stance are apparently based on leaks from Israeli officials. The Obama administration, and the Mitchell team in particular, have stayed carefully, consistently quiet. Last week the Defense Ministry media adviser's office promised but did not provide answers on when work would start on the newly approved homes and whether the government sees them as part of the supposedly agreed quota of 2,500.

But those are details. Netanyahu may think that Barack Obama's domestic popularity has dropped too much for him to confront Israel, or that the president is too busy with health-care reform, or that he's reverted to the classic American position: Getting peace talks moving is more important than stopping construction, because a peace agreement will resolve the settlements' future. In any case, the prime minister appears confident that America is now more interested in a declaration of a settlement freeze than in actually achieving one. The freeze can be a soft slush.

The second lesson, if it still needs to be learned, is that Netanyahu's declaration in June that he'd accept a "demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state" was hollow. During the supposed freeze that he's willing to accept, enough homes will be built to house 15,000 more settlers, give or take a few thousand. When the meaningless moratorium ends, more building will ensue. Netanyahu still believes that Israel can expand settlements, reduce the land left for Palestinians, and constrain them to watered-down autonomy. His predecessor Ehud Olmert recognized that the alternative to an Israeli withdrawal was Palestinian demands for citizenship -- meaning a one-state solution. For Netanyahu, that idea is an abstraction, akin to the possibility of an asteroid striking the earth. Like rightest leaders before him, he sees no need to negotiate when Palestinian violence has dropped off -- and will refuse to negotiate if it resumes. His proclaimed readiness to talk about a Palestinian state was meant to mollify Washington.

From this flows the third lesson: Netanyahu sees his negotiating partners not as the Palestinians -- but as Washington on one hand and his Likud Party and ruling coalition on the other. The risk he faces is that even a slowdown in building could cause a mutiny in the party and end his parliamentary majority. His goal is to satisfy Obama with half a freeze, and to satisfy his party with half of a building drive.

Mitchell's visit is therefore a test. If the envoy agrees to an ephemeral, partial freeze, we'll know that America is still willing to treat settlement as a public-relations problem. Construction will be played down in order to get to negotiations, even though continued building will undermine the talks. If Mitchell stands firm, if Obama does, it will show that Washington has finally learned something since Kissinger's day.

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