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Who will blink on Israeli settlements?

Opinion: Obama and Netanyahu are in a stand-off over the West Bank.

A Palestinian throws a stone at Jewish settlers during clashes near the West Bank city of Nablus June 1, 2009. Jewish settlers set fire to Palestinian fields and scuffled with Israeli security forces in the occupied West Bank after Israel removed an unauthorised settler outpost. (Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters)

BOSTON — A classic diplomatic standoff in the Middle East is emerging. U.S. President Barack Obama and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu are eyeball to eyeball over Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and the world waits to see who will blink first. 

The settlements, from a distance, look almost like Crusader castles on rocky, West Bank hill tops. Come closer and they resemble fortified hill towns, which is precisely what they are — armed homes to 300,000 Israelis living among two and half million Palestinians. Even the nomenclature is freighted with political meaning: West Bank for those who would see a Palestinian state, Judea and Samaria if you believe the territory should remain occupied by Israel. 

Most of the world considers the settlements illegal. Under international law occupiers are not supposed to change or settle the lands they occupy. For some Israelis, often on the left, settlements are obstacles to peace. For others they are excused as necessary for security. For the politically powerful settler movement on the right, settlements are on land that God promised the Jews. And when religion mixes with extreme nationalism, fanaticism is never far behind. 

Obama understands that halting the West Bank settlement expansion is a bedrock necessity if there is going to be a Palestinian state, a concept to which he is committed. For as the settlements grow and expand, they eat up more and more of the land that must be for the Palestinians if there is ever going to be a two-state solution. For Obama this is his chance to bring a lasting peace to the Middle East, and the stakes could not be higher given the rising unrest in the Muslim world in which fanatics use the abuse of the Palestinians as their oldest and truest recruiting tool. 

For Netanyahu, a Palestinian state has never been something to be desired. For his right-wing government the settler movement is something best accommodated. Netanyahu comes from the “Revisionist” wing of the Zionist movement, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky. The Revisionists never wanted the territorial compromises that David Ben Gurion accepted when Israel was born. Originally, the Jabotinsky faction wanted all the territory of the British mandate including what is now Jordan.

As for the Palestinians, they too once insisted on everything between the Jordan River and the Sea, but Yasser Arafat made an historic compromise to recognize Israel in its original, pre-1967 borders. His Fatah faction still holds to that. But Hamas, which grows stronger every day, does not. The Palestinian Authority looks at a settlement freeze as a sine qua non for negotiations.