U.S. President Barack Obama has set a collision course with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by demanding a cessation to any expansion, including so-called “natural expansion” of settlements in the occupied territories. These settlements, dotted across the West Bank with interconnecting Israeli-use only roads and a considerable expanse of allocated space, are so numerous that the political impossibility of their removal calls into question the viability of any future Palestinian state. Obama, like many presidents before him, has also committed himself to a peace settlement between the Palestinians and Israel.
Netanyahu, whose ruling coalition relies upon right wing parties committed to expanded settlements, cannot concede Obama’s demand without exacting a very high price. But all this happens against a background in which it has become clear both to academic and political elites in the U.S. that Israel has exerted too much political influence on U.S. policymaking. To have a colony dictating imperial policy is an intolerable embarrassment, and Obama, who has not merely broken campaign promises, but fully embraced the political mainstream, surely enjoys bipartisan elite support for an apparently tougher line.
So what price will Netanyahu settle for? I’m guessing Jerusalem. In another (at least one of these will be broken) campaign promise, Obama has both said that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” and, through his campaign, called it a “‘final status issue, which means it has to be negotiated between the two parties’ as part of ‘an agreement that they both can live with.'”
If there is to be a Palestinian state, at least some territory allocated to Israeli settlements will fall under Palestinian control. A halt to expansion is only the beginning of Israeli concessions for peace. And Palestinian jurisdiction over Israeli settlers would logically mean that their crimes against Palestinians, including expropriations of land and acts of violence, could be tried in Palestinian courts. All sides, including an utterly discredited Fatah movement, which itself is sustained only by Israeli and U.S. intransigence towards Hamas, will need to face harsh realities to achieve a settlement.
For Israel, this will mean giving up de facto but illegal jurisdiction over at least some settlements and a token right of return, I’m guessing, paying off heirs of dead Palestinians whose land was expropriated to make way for Israeli proper and allowing those few Palestinian landowners who are still alive to return in some shape or form. For Fatah, it will mean giving up Jerusalem and at least some bits of territory.
It will not be a just settlement. But justice is no longer possible. Justice for the Palestinians would mean rolling back the clock to a time before Israel’s existence. It would also mean war crimes trials for that substantial portion of the Israeli population that has participated with the Israeli Defense Forces, as well as in government, in a brutal and illegal occupation. Justice for many Israelis, who played no part in the original expropriations, and for Jews who equate their survival as a people demands the preservation and security of the Israeli state. These are mutually exclusive positions and while my own view leans heavily against Israel, and its continued existence as a state, I also know that this view is outside the range of acceptable political discourse in the United States.
As a first step, many in the U.S. would be entirely happy to cede, as if it was theirs to cede, Jerusalem to Israel. They have merely been waiting for satisfactory circumstances to do so. Extracting painful concessions–a freeze on settlement expansion from the Israelis and Jerusalem from the Palestinians–would create the appearance that Obama is prepared to play hardball with both sides and, for those willing to believe, allow him to once again pretend to be even-handed. Both Israeli and Palestinian governments may fall as a consequence. But the U.S. will have asserted its authority and Obama will have taken a step towards “restoring America’s moral [for which, read ‘imperial’] standing in the world.”