As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Settlements Issue Goes Public

If the President can be criticized in the first several months of his Administration, it would be for his reticence to step out on controversial issues. In fact, perhaps the first example of his White House being bold and forthright on something bound to win him enemies as well as friends is his very public stand against Israeli settlement building.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama Thursday ratcheted up what might be America's toughest bargaining position with Israel in a generation, demanding anew that Israel stop expanding its settlements in the disputed West Bank as a key step toward making peace with its Arab neighbors.

Obama made the demand after a White House meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, building on unusually blunt language the day before from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"Each party has obligations," Obama said of the so-called Road Map to Peace, to which Israel is a party. "On the Israeli side, those obligations include stopping settlements."

He said he made that point to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when they met earlier this month, noting that the conversation "only took place last week" and that Netanyahu must work through domestic politics, but added: "We don't have a moment to lose."

You can read Obama's statement after meeting with Abbas here. It's astounding to see an American President pick a public fight with Israel. But ultimately, stopping the settlement expansion is in the best interest of the Israelis and eventual peace.

Isn't likely to happen so fast, however:

Mr. Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev said Thursday that the prime minister won't change his long-held position that building should be allowed to continue in existing settlements as part of "natural growth."

Mr. Regev said any complete freeze in settlement activity could be discussed only in final-status peace negotiations with the Palestinians. But Palestinian leaders have refused to resume negotiations until Mr. Netanyahu acknowledges the commitments of past Israeli governments to a Palestinian state.

Laura Rozen has more from Netanyahu's perspective. He appears to have been really blindsided by an Administration who refuses to bend their principles to fit the dictates of the Israel lobby.

"This is a sea change for Netanyahu," a former senior Clinton administration official who worked on Middle East issues said. The official said that the basis of the Obama White House's resolve is the conviction that it is in the United States' as well as Israel's interest to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "We have significant, existential threats that Israel faces from Iran and that the U.S. faces from this region. It is in our mutual interest to end this conflict, and to begin to build new regional alliances."

Netanyahu needed to engage Obama directly, the former official said. "Now that he has done so, and also sent a team of advisors to meet [special envoy to the Middle East George] Mitchell, he has very clearly received a message: ‘I meant what I said on settlements. No natural growth. No elasticity. There will be a clear settlement freeze.'" (Netanyahu sent a team of advisors including minister for intelligence Dan Meridor for meetings with Mitchell in London Monday.)

"Over the past 15 years, settlements have gone from being seen in Washington as an irritant, to the dominant issue," says Georgetown Univeristy Middle East expert Daniel Byman. He pointed out that key figures in the Obama administration -- Mitchell, who headed the Mitchell Commission, which recommended a halt to settlements; national security advisor Gen. Jim Jones -- see the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, home to some 290,000 people, as a key obstacle to getting a peace settlement. "I don't think the logic is hidden," Byman said.

It's really fascinating, and I honestly don't know how it'll play out. The wingnuts are preoccupied with calling a circuit court judge a racist right now, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the Wurlitzer ramp up on this before too long. Expect some stories about the Black Muslim in the White House siding with the Palestinians, when in actuality, Obama is siding with the Israelis by insisting on the only avenue for progress. Bully for him.

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