U.S. Policy on Israeli Settlements

  • The Obama administration's tough, confrontational rhetoric on Israeli settlements raises a number of specific questions: Were Israeli settlements a violation of international law? Were Israeli settlements a violation of agreements and an obstacle to further progress in any future peace talks? Did the administration envision Israel withdrawing completely to the 1967 lines or did it accept the idea that Israel would retain part of the territories for defensible borders?
  • Many observers are surprised to learn that settlement activity was not defined as a violation of the 1993 Oslo Accords or their subsequent implementation agreements. If the U.S. is now seeking to constrain Israeli settlement activity, it is essentially trying to obtain additional Israeli concessions that were not formally required according to Israel's legal obligations under the Oslo Accords.
  • President Bush's deputy national security advisor, Elliot Abrams, wrote in the Washington Post on April 8, 2009, that the U.S. and Israel negotiated specific guidelines for settlement activity, whereby "settlement activity is not diminishing the territory of a future Palestinian entity." If the U.S. is concerned that Israel might diminish the territory that the Palestinians will receive in the future, then the Obama team could continue with the quiet guidelines followed by the Bush administration and the Sharon government.
  • Given the fact that the amount of territory taken up by the built-up areas of all the settlements in the West Bank is estimated to be 1.7 percent of the territory, the marginal increase in territory that might be affected by natural growth is infinitesimal. Moreover, since Israel unilaterally withdrew 9,000 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the argument that a settler presence will undermine a future territorial compromise has lost much of its previous force.
  • The U.S. and Israel need to reach a new understanding on the settlements question. Legally and diplomatically, settlements do not represent a problem that can possibly justify putting at risk the U.S.-Israel relationship. It might be that the present tension in U.S.-Israeli relations is not over settlements, but rather over the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank that the Obama administration envisions.
  • Disturbingly, on June 1, 2009, the State Department spokesman, Robert Wood, refused to answer repeated questions about whether the Obama administration viewed itself as legally bound by the April 2004 Bush letter to Sharon on defensible borders and settlement blocs. It would be better to obtain earlier clarification of that point, rather than having both countries expend their energies over an issue that may not be the real underlying source of their dispute.
In his June 4, 2009, Cairo speech, President Barack Obama continued to focus U.S. policy on Israel's construction practices in the West Bank, which he forcefully criticized: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop." His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was no less forceful when speaking on May 27, 2009, about Obama's stand on this issue: "He wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth' exceptions."

The Obama administration's tough, confrontational rhetoric on Israeli settlements raises the question of whether it represents a sharp break from the policies of past administrations. Moreover, Obama's assertion that current Israeli construction represents a violation of past agreements raises the question of which agreement he had in mind.

Israeli settlements in the territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War date back more than forty years. They began as military and agricultural outposts that were located for the most part in strategically significant areas of the West Bank which Israel planned to eventually claim. These settlements were also situated in areas from which Jews had been evicted during the 1948 War. While the U.S. did not support the settlement enterprise, its response to the settlements has varied in intensity, depending on the overall relationship between the two countries.

For example, the Carter administration abstained in the UN Security Council repeatedly in 1979 when draft resolutions came up for a vote that condemned Israeli settlement activity. Yet suddenly in March 1980, the administration initially decided to support Resolution 465 that called for "dismantling" all settlements, although later it reversed its position.
This varying response to the settlement issue also stemmed from U.S. policy on a number of specific questions raised by the establishment of Israeli settlements:
  • Were Israeli settlements a violation of international law?
  • Were Israeli settlements a violation of specific bilateral agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors and an obstacle to further progress in any future peace talks?
  • To what extent did the administration envision Israel withdrawing completely to the 1967 lines or did it accept the idea that Israel would retain part of the territories for defensible borders and its security needs?
Read the full report at the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs.



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