In the latest spat over settlements, the White House “strongly condemned” Israeli plans to build 98 new housing units (to be followed by another 200 eventually) in an expansion of the town Shilo in Samaria (Above: The Synagogue of Shilo, built as a replica of the Tabernacle which was located there before the Temple was built in Jerusalem)
This expansion of Shilo is the proposed solution to the issue of Amona, and its roughly 400 residents, a town about to be evacuated following a Supreme Court ruling that it was built illegally on private Arab land.

The White House Correspondent, Mark Knoller of the CBS, put it like this:

While there’s no doubt that the White House is upset with the Israeli decision to expand the settlement, there are some oddities in the ways it explained the strong condemnation. For example, it kept referring to the expanded settlement as a “new settlement”, a phrase that was picked up by the New York Times editorial board in its somewhat desperate plea to President Obama to use the Security Council to bring Israel to heel. As the town Shilo, with roughly 3.5 thousand residents, was established in the late 70s, it seems a bit ludicrous to be outraged over this “new settlement”. Although critics point out that the municipal borders of Israeli towns in Judea and Samaria are so extensive that what Israel calls a new neighborhood is for all purposes in fact a new settlement. I don’t know whether that is true or if it really makes a difference.

A minor oddity is how Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary, claimed that Shilo is much closer to Jordan than to Israel. As anyone with a map can see it is located roughly in the center of Samaria, about as far to the Jordan River as it is to the 1949 armistice line between the Kingdom of Jordan and Israel, more commonly referred to as the “green line”. Mr. Earnest is correct though that it is located in the heart of the West Bank, and it isn’t part of the settlement blocks that are slated to remain under Israeli sovereignty after a successful peace treaty leading to two states. Most of the international community believe that such settlements are detrimental to the peace process, while Israel argues that it has a right to build in its historical homeland and that a future Palestinian state does not preclude the existence of Jewish residents within it. (More on that in a future post.)

A more important oddity is found in Mr. Earnest’s statement that “in the wake of Israel and the United States concluding an unprecedented agreement on military assistance designed to further strengthen Israel’s security, that Israel would take a decision contrary to its long-term security interest — a long-term security interest that the United States is prepared to dedicate billions of dollars to protect.”

As a sovereign nation Israel is entitled to determine its own long-term security interests, regardless of the generous American aid. It’s been clear for a long time that the US doesn’t view the Middle East in the same way Israel, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, does. The presumption by the White House to know Israel’s interests better than it does itself, is very condescending to say the least. Given the numerous failures of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, in the Middle East in particular, one might think that they would have learned some humility by now. As Professor Walter Russell Mead recently put it in “The Real Middle East Story” (read it all) in the American Interest:

There is perhaps only one thing harder for the American mind to process than the fact that President Obama has been a terrible foreign policy president, and that is that Bibi Netanyahu is an extraordinarily successful Israeli Prime Minister. In Asia, in Africa, in Latin America, Israel’s diplomacy is moving from strength to strength. Virtually every Arab and Middle Eastern leader thinks that Bibi is smarter and stronger than President Obama, and as American prestige across the Middle East has waned under Obama, Israel’s prestige — even among people who hate it — has grown.

While I doubt that this is an endorsement by W.R.M. of Netanyahu in all things, or of his government in general, it is close to a fact that Israel has gone from strength to strength under his leadership.

Was the foreign aid deal an alibi to cover impending anti-Israel actions?

Clearly a provocative heading, but this is basically what an unnamed Israeli official, “a senior political source”, told Channel 2 News with the typical Israeli political sensitivity. There has been much speculation for some time about possible actions President Obama may take after the upcoming US elections. The argument goes that the President will never be as free from domestic political constraints as he would during his last months in office.

So what are the options being discussed? The weaker one consists of the President outlining his framework for the two-state solution, going in to greater detail than before in articulating US positions on settlements, borders, refugees etc. The stronger alternative is to get behind, or refrain from vetoing, a UN resolution, perhaps likely proposed by the UK or France, which gives a more detailed framework legal standing. This is what the NYT argues for in its previously mentioned editorial. It may in fact not be too far-fetched, given that the White House doesn’t trust Israel’s current government’s intentions with regards to the two-state solution. The US has made it abundantly clear that it believes that settlements are an impediment to peace, which ties this point to the first “oddity” in the WH Press Secretary’s statements mentioned earlier. A UNSC resolution would likely affirm the opinion of the international community that settlements are illegal, especially ones “closer to Jordan than to Israel”.

The question is whether the President truly believes that dictating terms to the two parties is the best way to proceed; if he has given up on direct negotiations. Recall the statement by Mr. Earnest to the effect that the US believes it knows Israel’s long-term security interests better than Israel does.

Hillary Clinton recently came out against such measures. Haaretz reports:

In the meeting [with Netanyahu in New York], Clinton stressed “her opposition to any attempt by outside parties to impose a solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “including by the UN Security Council,” according to a statement released by her campaign. She further reaffirmed her commitment to a two-state solution negotiated directly by the parties.

Whether she truly believes this, or is constrained by politics, is a good question. Regardless of which, a more interesting question is if she would disregard a UN resolution outlining a framework that will probably closely match her own beliefs on the issues. I seriously doubt that. Of course she would make use of such a resolution to gain leverage over the parties, mostly over Israel. She could argue that the Security Council resolution is binding on her and that the US must honor its commitments. If she feels that it furthers her agenda and mirrors her beliefs, she would be foolish not to use it. I don’t doubt that she would be committed to Israel’s security as she sees it, just as President Obama was and remains, but neither of them believes that Israel has any business in Judea and Samaria and both of them envision the two-state solution as the only way forward.

My gut tells me it is entirely possible that the President will go forward with a UNSC resolution, proposed by someone else, and that he believes that imposing a framework, rather than a complete solution, is the only way forward. I also believe that if he does so he likely thinks that he’s ultimately doing Israel a favor by saving it from itself. It’s pretty clear that most of the world has lost hope in direct negotiations leading to a resolution of the conflict and President Obama’s own efforts have continuously been frustrated. Perhaps he believes that Israel has too strong a support among Americans and their elected representatives that no president dares bending Israel’s arm enough. Maybe he thinks that he would thereby help the next president, or any future president for that matter, by freeing them from some constraints.

I also believe that this would fundamentally be a mistake. A half-baked solution now is worse than no solution at all. A framework imposed by outsiders with no skin in the game will necessarily make both sides unhappy and feel less bound by it than if it was agreed between themselves. More Israelis will be convinced that President Obama, and by extension the Democrats, can’t be trusted on Israel. It’s a truism among Israeli pundits that Israel will only make real concessions if it believes that the US has its back. In this, perception is often stronger than actions. There’s no doubt in my mind that President Obama, in actions as well as many statements, has had Israel’s back for almost 8 years. The prevailing perception nonetheless, is that the current administration can’t fundamentally be trusted – a perception fueled by countless critical statements and snubs as well as an overall pattern in its behavior vis-à-vis its allies in the region.

While the Palestinian issue is real and needs an eventual solution that is respectful of the human rights on both sides, it is becoming increasingly clear that the two-state solution is dead. While Benjamin Netanyahu could theoretically deliver a solid Israeli majority for painful concessions, there is no such leader among the Palestinians who could conceivably do the same. The current Palestinian president is old, weak and leads a divided people. Whoever comes after him isn’t likely to enjoy even that much power. This is the situation after more than a decade of attempts, by the international community and also Israel, to prop up the Palestinian Authority and its president. A future Palestinian state would both lack the necessary institutions, unity of purpose, legitimacy and funds to make a peace agreement last longer than future power shifts. To put it frankly, no electable Israeli government would make the necessary concessions when the likelihood of future conflict is so overwhelming. To do so would be suicidal. I hope that the strong condemnation issues by the White House isn’t a harbinger of future action, but rather a venting of frustration over Israeli policy after having shored up its pro-Israel credentials with the signing of the aid package.

It remains to be seen.