Israeli governments began to “settle” Israelis in East Jerusalem and the West Bank shortly after conquering these territories in the June 1967 War, the “Six-Day-War” – under a Labour Government. The trend intensified after a right-wing nationalist Premier (the late Menahem Begin) came to power, for the first time ever in Israel’s history, in 1977. It has never stopped since then, although it has had its highs and lows (and was dramatically reversed in the Gaza Strip by Prime Minister Sharon, in 2005).
Settlements are illegal according to the United Nations
The UN Security Council was explicit, right at the beginning, in condemning these activities as violations of international law. Indeed international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, to which Israel is a party, forbids the “belligerent occupant” from settling elements of its own population in territories under its “belligerent occupation”. The occupying power, instead, must administer such territories, for the benefit of their own proper population, in the period before a peace treaty is concluded, and at that time must end the occupation altogether. This, the ending of the occupation upon the conclusion of peace, is required by the UN Charter, which excludes the acquisition of territory by force.
For years Israeli spokesmen abroad argued that those territories were not “occupied” but “disputed”, and that therefore the prohibition on colonisation did not apply to them. This was never a persuasive argument, since it is obvious that a party should not act unilaterally in treating a “disputed” area as its own, while the “dispute” is pending. Interestingly, in any case, Premier Sharon’s government in 2005 emphatically contradicted that very defence of the settlements; when needing to reply to petitions to Israel’s Supreme Court from the Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip, whom that Government had decided to repatriate. In answer to the settlers’ claim that they were being unjustly evicted from “their homes”, the State Attorney, boldly reversed decades of apologetics, and argued that the settlers could not claim property rights, or a right to stay indefinitely in “their homes”, in the Gaza Strip, because of the territory’s status in international law as being under “belligerent occupation”! The Supreme Court, of course, fully endorsed this position of the Government.
For a while, the US either supported such Security Council Resolutions, or else abstained, letting them pass and become binding. Later, US rhetoric on the matter was toned down, and US representatives simply limited themselves to ambiguous formulae, such as that the settlements were “an obstacle to peace” or (toning it down even further) that they “were not helpful” to peace. Successive Israeli governments have interpreted this softer rhetoric to mean that the US did not really object; that its periodic statements in this vein were simply a formality of some kind, or a verbal “palliative” for the Palestinians.
During the presidency of George W.H. Bush in the US, elements of the Israeli government became openly and directly defiant of the US position. It is well remembered that, precisely whenever Secretary of State James Baker came to the region to promote peace efforts, new settlement work was being undertaken with much publicity. While Secretary Baker was not too reticent in speaking his mind about such conduct, there was no real pressure from the US to cease and desist. Rather, the Administration, after “Desert Storm,” preferred to concentrate on inducing the Israeli Government of right-wing nationalist Yitzhak Shamir to accept the invitation to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, which created a particularly promising framework for comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. With hopes of imminent major strides towards peace, it was preferred not to waste energies on an issue, the settlement drive that was seen as close to definitive resolution anyway. Likewise, in the hope-filled years after the “Oslo Accord” of 1993, neither the US Administration nor the “peace camp” in Israel, led by Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who was assassinated by a nationalist right wing extremist on 4 November 1995, precisely in order to stop the progress towards peace) wished to spend political capital on an issue that they once more regarded as likely to be soon resolved anyway. But while neither the US nor the “peace camp” in Israel were making this issue a priority, the settlement drive continued inexorably. In the ten years that followed the 1993 “Oslo Agreement” (mutual recognition of the Israeli and Palestinian nations, including a gradual pathway towards a peace treaty), the number of settlers in the West Bank alone (not including East Jerusalem) doubled, and it has continued to grow significantly since then.
The settlements are preventing an end to the occupation
As the protagonists of the settlement drive have always explained quite openly; their purpose is to make the ending of the occupation impossible. Not only are the settlements taking away from the Palestinians both land and scarce water resources, they are increasingly fragmenting the Palestinians territory, separating towns and villages from each other, making transportation and movement between them ever more difficult, exhausting and expensive, sometimes utterly impossible. Moreover, the more fanatical elements among the settlers deliberately try to provoke the Palestinians. Violent settlers attack Palestinian farmers as they work on their land, beat up schoolchildren on their way to school, cut down the Palestinians’ olive groves, and generally make their lives hell on earth.
Recently the situation has become particularly critical in East Jerusalem. There the settlers are systematically moving into the heart of Palestinian neighbourhoods, taking over buildings and other properties. A recent report by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, publicized in the Israeli press, finds that 35% of Palestinian East Jerusalem has already been taken over by settlers. The Government, for its part, is increasingly resorting to the demolition of Palestinian homes; the UN reports that there is a risk of demolition to thousands of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. As the settlement drive continues, and the damage it does is becoming more acute, the United States is becoming alarmed at its effect on the very possibility of peace. The US is motivated, not only by a general concern for the rule of law in international affairs, but also by the harm it sees in this to the national security of the United States (and of its friends and allies). The US sees the on-going settlement drive as a major cause of rising discontent among the Palestinians, and elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic world, and as a powerful recruiting tool in the hands of extremist, terrorist organizations. It believes that this state of affairs seriously impacts on the security of the US, since continuing apparent acquiescence, on the part of the US, in Israel’s settlement drive intensifies the targeting of the US too, by such violent movements, and runs counter to the Obama Administration’s attempt to initiate a new kind of relationship with the greater part of the Arab and Islamic world.
Obama: Yes, we can (or maybe not!)
The Netanyahu government is trying hard to persuade the US that these are marginal issues, and that the Administration’s priority should be to respond to Iran’s nuclearisation programmed, with its infinite danger for world security. But the Administration of President Obama tells the Israeli Government that, precisely in order to counter effectively the danger from Iran, it needs to build up its alliances with the moderate Arab countries, and that this is being made very difficult, perhaps impossible to achieve, as long as Israel’s aggressive colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem is inflaming public opinion in those countries and endangering their pro-Western regimes.
On his recent visit to Washington, Premier Netanyahu, as reported by the Israeli press, also tried to get the US to back off by claiming that any move on his part to contain the expansion of the settlements would endanger the survival of his coalition government, which – apart form a minority of Labour ministers – is made up of right-wing nationalists, both secular and religious. It is not at all sure, however, that such an outcome would be unwelcome in Washington…
Given how much Israel depends on the United States, there is little doubt that the answer to the question: “Can President Obama enforce a “cease and desist” order for Israel’s settlement drive?” is assuredly: “Yes, he can”[i]. Will he, though? That is another question, and the next few weeks will provide the answer to this one.
* Hillel Ben-Yishai is the pseudonym used by an important diplomatic expert who prefers to remain anonymous.
[i] “Yes, he can!” is a reference to Obama’s election catch phrase “Yes, we can!”