Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is visiting the U.S. this week so it must be time for someone else in his government to announce a plan to expand Israeli housing on the West Bank or in Jerusalem. The prime minister then downplays the announcement and says Jerusalem is not a settlement and Israel building settlements is not a roadblock to peace with the Palestinians.


We saw this movie last March when Israel announced renewed settlement building on the West Bank just when Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel. The Palestinians don’t want to negotiate without a settlement freeze in place. And Netanyahu has many political allies in his right-wing government who are pro-settlements.


The Obama administration, desperately trying to solve the 60-year-old Israeli-Palestinian dispute, says it finds the settlement announcements unhelpful and “counterproductive.” Secretary of State Clinton met with Netanyahu on Nov. 11 to try to jump-start the talks.


As an American Jew and someone who generally supports Israel, despite its flaws, I can’t understand why the Israeli government insists on pushing this settlement issue, provoking the ire of its most important ally, the U.S., large segments of the American Jewish community and the American public and risking undermining the peace talks.


Yes, the Palestinian side has used the settlement issue to its advantage by saying it wouldn’t negotiate if the Israelis didn’t continue a temporary freeze on settlements. But Israel is the dominant player in this equation. It controls the ground on the disputed West Bank. Why not just eliminate the controversy by putting the settlement policy on hold? No one is going to go without shelter in the short-term. The Israelis will look magnanimous and diplomatic, instead of blustering into another avoidable crisis.


It’s time for the U.S. government and the American Jewish community to tell Neytanyahu to decide once and for all whether it’s more important for him to placate his settler allies and continue to embarrass the U.S. administration or to actually take meaningful steps toward peace negotiations. That would mean freezing further settlements construction. The American government provides enormous funds to Israel as does the American Jewish community. We can’t dictate policy to the Israeli government, but we should be able to get Neytanyahu’s attention long enough for him to stop taking us for granted or for chumps.


Furthermore, the settlement flap provides the Palestinian leadership an out. They say that if the Israelis don’t freeze the settlement construction, they may declare an independent state and take their case to the U.N. and the international community. The U.S. is trying to downplay that effort, but it may even have some support among the Israeli public and a lot of sympathy in the international community. Why doesn’t Israel avoid the issue?


 The stakes are high as the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz wrote the other day:


“After Israel was burned last March when the Interior Ministry announced intentions to authorize the construction of 1,600 housing units at Ramat Shlomo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannot now hide behind the excuse that he didn't know that such plans were about to be announced. The open rift last March between Israel and the U.S., that threatened the whole network of relations between the countries, gave rise to an agreement holding that Israel would not again surprise the U.S. government with construction plans for the territories and East Jerusalem.

“However, it turns out that Israel is unable or unwilling to abide by this agreement. Thus, this direct, public tussle with the American government and world opinion leads to a new situation: Israel's being defined as a peace rejectionist and an untrustworthy state. If the prime minister does not immediately announce his opposition to these construction plans, and his intention to defer them at least until a new agreement is reached concerning talks with the Palestinians, he will be unable to convince anyone that he really wants peace.”

Or as J-Street, a fairly new Jewish American group that supports Israel but isn’t afraid to criticize its policies, put it: “The latest negotiations designed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hang by a thread, and the United States is working tirelessly to find a way to keep hope for a diplomatic two-state resolution to the conflict alive…..

“Until negotiations over the border have been finalized, we urge Israel to delay any further construction over the Green Line (pre-1967 borders) in the interest of its long-term security and survival as a democracy and as the homeland of the Jewish people.”

One of the reasons the U.S. is pushing hard for a negotiated settlement for a Palestinian state next to Israel sooner rather than later, and the reason that friends of Israel should want the same, is that the demographic clock is ticking. Within a few years, if no settlement is reached, there will be more Palestinians than Jews living in Israel proper and the West Bank and Gaza. At that point, Israel will cease to be a democratic Jewish state. It either will have to give up its Jewish identity or become undemocratic and govern through force its majority Palestinian people. That is not the kind of social justice that is a cornerstone of the Jewish faith. And no amount of Israeli housing settlements on the West Bank or outside Jerusalem is worth destroying an opportunity, at long last, for peace.

We should remember what former Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin said to the Palestinians more than 25 years ago on the White House lawn: “We are today giving peace a chance, and saying again to you, enough.” That’s the message Netanyahu should send to his settler allies.






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