Obama, Settlements, & the Missing Leverage


President Obama was not exactly a maverick: every U.S. administration since Richard Nixon has voiced implicit or explicit opposition to Israeli settlements. During the Nixon administration, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations William Scarnton said, “Substantial resettlement of the Israeli civilian population in occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, is illegal under the [Fourth Geneva] convention.” During the Carter administration, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance told Congress that Israeli settlement expansion is “an impediment to the successful conclusion of the Middle East peace process.” And President Clinton, when asked in December 1996 if settlements were an obstacle to peace, stated: “Absolutely.”

Obama, for his part, went further than most U.S. administrations, conditioning U.S. mediation of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a settlement freeze. “Settlements have to be stopped,” Obama told Netanyahu in May 2009, “in order for us to move forward.” Obama ended up with a 10-month freeze, partial as it was, then failed to produce another this fall.

Obama has since been roundly criticized: for focusing on settlements in the first place, for managing the issue in such a crude and confrontational manner, for failing to produce results in its wake, etc.  Others, however, argued the U.S. did not go far enough. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times suggested that the U.S. start conditioning aid to Israel on its cooperation with America. Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic called full-stop for an end to such aid.

It wouldn’t have been unprecedented for Obama to leverage U.S. aid to Israel. In the lead-up to the Madrid Conference of 1991, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was supporting robust settlement expansion and asking for $10 billion in US loan guarantees. This irked Secretary of State James Baker, who was trying to orchestrate the conference. “I don’t think that there is any bigger obstacle to peace,” Baker declared before a House subcommittee in May, “than the settlement activity that continues not only unabated but at an enhanced pace.” After Shamir refused to freeze settlements, President Bush persuaded Congress to postpone the loan guarantees: "[The United States] must do everything we can to give peace a chance."

I tend to agree that Obama didn’t go far enough. There is no doubt that Israeli settlements impede negotiations. Settlements cast doubt on Israel’s motives and commitment to resolving the conflict.  Settlements fuel violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Settlements render any final status agreement harder to implement. And settlements undermine the credibility of the U.S., which has long voiced various degrees of opposition to them.

I also think Netanyahu’s domestic constraints were exaggerated. Senior members of his coalition had been threatening to leave his coalition if he acceded to Obama’s conditions. Be this as it may, Obama still should have put the national interests of the U.S. above the coalition interests of Netanyahu, even if that meant Netanyahu having to reshape his coalition. Those who reel at the suggestion of this should remember: Netanyahu acted in defiance of Israeli public opinion.  According to a poll by the Institute for National Security Studies, 83 percent of Israelis oppose settlement expansion at the expense of a confrontation with the U.S.

It will be 25 years until we know what President Obama knew about all of these issues at the time of decision-making, as well as how he and his advisors assessed them. It may also be a while before the broader ramifications of his decisions manifest themselves, for better or worse. In this sense, the debate has just begun. 

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Christiansen