Unnatural Growth And Congressional Spine Stiffening
Not surprisingly, the Israeli hard-right government won't give an inch on settlement expansion, at least not for now. They've backed down to the "natural growth" dodge, which is a small victory because "natural growth" is such a transparently stupid concept - as if it's natural to build a new house for your son on someone else's land when he gets married. Gershom Gorenberg knocks this down pretty easily.
Barack Obama has not demanded that women in settlements stop having babies. Rather, he has insisted that Israel stop construction in settlements, in line with its commitments under the 2003 road map for peace -- in line, in fact, with American opposition to settlement building since 1967. Consistent with the road map, and with the 2001 report written by George Mitchell, now Obama's Middle East envoy, the president has rejected Israeli insistence that construction continue to allow for "natural growth" of the settler population.
The deliberate twisting of Obama's stance is aimed at both a domestic and American audience. And it has confused some otherwise astute observers. Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York and chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East, said in press statement on Tuesday that he supported a settlement freeze but not one that "calls on Israeli families not to grow [or] get married. Telling people not to have children is unthinkable and inhumane."
Don't worry, Mr. Ackerman: The president is not talking about universal contraception for Israeli settlers. If there's any logic behind the rhetoric of Schneller, Hershkowitz, et al., it's a claim that people have the natural right to have a larger home in the same community if they expand their families, and to have their grown children live down the street. Why should that be true? West Bank settlements aren't ancient communities in isolated valleys hundreds of miles from the nearest town. They are recently established bedroom communities, within commuting distance of Israeli cities -- where many settlers in fact work.
The settlement housing is heavily subsidized by the state, too.
It's just a way to keep growing the settlements while claiming not to grow them. And fortunately, Ackerman clarified himself today, affirming that settlement construction must stop.
In fact, even those Jewish Democrats previously offering unstinting support for Israel have felt more free to criticize on this particular issue, mindful that settlement growth represents a threat to peace in the region.
For the first time in America's decades of jousting with Israel over West Bank settlements, an American president seems to have succeeded in isolating the settlements issue and disconnecting it from other elements of support for Israel.
It is a disentanglement now seen most clearly in Congress, which in the past served as Israel's stronghold against administration pressure on the issue. But when Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu came to Capitol Hill for a May 18 meeting after being pressed by President Obama to freeze the expansion of West Bank settlements, he was "stunned," Netanyahu aides said, to hear what seemed like a well-coordinated attack against his stand on settlements. The criticism came from congressional leaders, key lawmakers dealing with foreign relations and even from a group of Jewish members.
They included Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee; California Democrat Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, and California Rep. Henry Waxman, a senior Democrat.
The Jewish lawmakers among them believed "it was their responsibility to make him [Netanyahu] very, very aware of the concerns of the administration and Congress," said a congressional aide briefed on the meeting. The aide, who declined to be identified, stressed that despite the argument on settlement issues, members of Congress remained fully supportive of Israel on all other issues, including the need to deal with Iran and the concern over Hamas and Hezbollah's activity.
In their meetings, according to the congressional aide, lawmakers rejected Netanyahu's call for Palestinian reciprocity on terrorism as a precondition and kept pressing him on the need to stop building in settlements.
Good. More than anything, this represents the follow-through on Obama's speech to the Muslim world - a real change in US policy and pressing from a legitimate stance of an honest broker.
None of this means that Israel will budge, of course. Look at the ice to cut through.
I think at some point, not yet but at some point, the purse strings need to come into play.