Who will blink on Israeli settlements?

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.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid down the line in the sand for Israel. The President wants to “see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ expectations,” but all settlement expansion. Period. 

Netanyahu hoped he might buy off Obama by taking down the little outposts, usually consisting of a trailer and a couple of tents, which even the Israeli government considers illegal, but often winks at. Indeed a few of them were dismantled, but often in the past the settlers move right back when attention turns elsewhere. In the past Israel has reduced pressure to stop settlements by saying no new ones, we will just expand the old ones to accommodate all the children that are being born. 

This time Obama is saying no, but Netanyahu is saying yes. Israel will continue with natural growth expansion. His political base demands it. 

Any American president has a great deal of leverage over Israel. Obama’s vision is a two-state solution with Arab recognition of Israel, which the Saudi peace plan also envisions, and on which all of the Arab League nations have signed. As Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz has written: If Netanyahu does not play his role (in this vision), "he will find himself at devastating odds with the sole ally on which his country profoundly relies.” 

Israeli nationalism may back a confrontation with the United States up to a point. But the electorate will punish any Israeli politician who strays too far from the United States. 

On the other hand, Netanyahu has his own allies in the American camp. The American Congress is very wary of confrontations with Israel, and often Israel has found its way around presidents who are prone to say no by appealing to Capitol Hill. The pro-Israel lobby is, perhaps, the most powerful lobby in Washington. And as George H.W. Bush found out, confronting Israel can result in punishment at the polls. 

There are newer, more liberal pro-Israel lobbying groups that can give Congressmen a way of supporting Israel without backing the Israeli right. But the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is still king of the hill, and usually backs the political right in Israel, especially when it comes to ceding territory on the West Bank. 

All of this is complicated by Iran. Netanyahu says he wants to see Iran de-nuked first before there is any movement on the Palestinians — a position that has considerable support in Israel. 

The diplomatic dance that is unfolding is unique because no country has more political leverage in Israel than the United States, and no country can exert more pressure in Washington than Israel.

More on Israeli settlements:

Egyptians set the stage for Obama address

Bibi in a corner: Obama presses Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop building in West Bank settlements

In Hebron, Noam Arnon sits tight and worries