West Bank settlements have long been a bone of contention between Israel and the United States, which views them as an obstacle to peace. Over the past few years, however, Israel tried to reach a tacit understanding with Washington on settlement expansion, which is now put to the test: President Barack Obama demands a complete and utter construction freeze, whereas Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists on building in settlement blocs, as his predecessors Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert during George W. Bush's term in office.
The settlement controversy reached its zenith at the twilight of Yitzhak Shamir's government in 1992. Israel had asked for loan guarantees to help fund the absorption of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the recently collapsed Soviet Union. Then U.S. President George H.W. Bush conditioned the aid on a complete settlement freeze. Shamir was defiant, and Bush remained firm.
Yitzhak Rabin, who succeeded Shamir as prime minister, reached an oral agreement with Bush on the loan guarantees. Rabin promised that Israel would complete the housing units that were under construction and limit future construction in all settlements in the Jordan Valley and the Jerusalem area, which Rabin dubbed "security areas." The New York Times reported that the construction would be for "natural growth" purposes, and would amount to building additional rooms in existing houses and infrastructure. In practice, Israel went far beyond that.
Rabin made a distinction between "security settlements" - those bordering the Green Line - and "political settlements" in the hinterland. These two categories were later renamed "settlement blocs" and "remote settlements," respectively. The exact location of the settlement blocs has never been determined, but it is broadly accepted that Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, Ariel and the settlements around Jerusalem, in which most settlers live, will be annexed to Israel in a future peace agreement.
When Bill Clinton replaced Bush in office in 1993 he adhered to the understandings reached with Rabin over the 'natural growth' of the settlements, and to the Oslo accord, which was signed earlier that year, in which both sides agreed to refrain from unilateral moves that would affect a permanent agreement.
At the beginning of the Intifada, Clinton consented to Yasser Arafat's request and appointed an international committee headed by former senator George Mitchell to probe the roots of the crisis. The Mitchell report, which came out in May 2001, recommended that the Palestinians relinquish violence against Israel and that Israel freeze settlement expansion. The recommendation was unequivocal: Israel must cease all construction in the settlements, including 'natural growth.'
The new prime minister, Ariel Sharon, accepted the report's recommendations and strove toward an understanding with the Bush administration that would enable Israel to continue building in the settlements.
Then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres presented a new formula to his U.S. counterpart, Colin Powel, replacing the concept of 'natural growth,' which Mitchell rejected, with an Israeli promise to build only within the limits of the settlements existing boundaries.
In June 2001, Sharon presented the Israeli position to the American team: no new settlements; no further expropriation of land for building (with the exception of roads); no building in settlements for the purpose of expansion; Israel's adherence to the initiative depends upon the Palestinians' fulfillment of their side of the agreement.
Sharon told the Americans that any new building in the settlements would be done for the purpose of meeting the settlements' "basic needs."
Israel called the formula the "Peres-Powell understanding." The Americans denied ever accepting the Israeli position.
In 2003 the U.S. formulated the road map for the establishment of a Palestinian state, according to which Israel was required to cease all construction in the settlements, including 'natural growth,' and evacuate all of the outposts established under Sharon (since March 2001). Israel refused to agree to a complete freeze on settlement construction.
In April 2003, White House officials Stephen Hadley and Elliot Abrams arrived in Jerusalem on a secret visit, and on May 1, in Sharon's Jerusalem residence, they were told by the prime minister and his senior adviser Dov Weisglass that from that point onward there would be no 'natural growth,' only 'construction within the existing borders of the settlements,' the argument being that such construction would not further infringe on Palestinian land.
In May 2003 Weisglass met with Bush's National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in Washington and presented her with Israel's commitments: No new settlements; no expropriation of Palestinian land for the purpose of construction; no government funding of settlement construction; no expansion of settlements beyond their existing boundaries.
In the summer of 2003 the Americans attempted, unsuccessfully, to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process on the basis of the road map. Sharon chose an alternate path: He evacuated all the Gaza Strip settlements and, in accordance with American demands, four West Bank settlements.
In return, Sharon requested and, in April 2004, received a letter from Bush stating that it would be unrealistic to ask Israel to withdraw to behind the Green Line in any future agreement "in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion." The interpretation was that Bush accepted the future annexation of settlement blocs to Israel. But the American's wording was cautious, and spoke of "existing centers" - not future construction.
Alongside his letter to Bush, Weisglass also dispatched a letter to Rice, the first section of which spoke of "the restrictions on the expansion of the settlements" and stated that within the agreed-upon principles of the settlement enterprise, an effort would be made to better define the limits of construction within the West Bank settlements. According to Weisglass' interpretation, this letter proves the there was U.S. consent to further construction within the existing boundaries of the settlements.
Weisglass and Rice decided to form a joint committee charged with mapping the settlements and marking the construction lines - "Blue Lines" - of each one, but could not agree on the exact outlines. The Americans wanted only the large settlement blocs mapped, under the assumption that the isolated settlements would be evacuated; Israel sought to mark only the isolated settlements. In the fall of 2004 the Americans relinquished their demand.
Prior to the disengagement, carried out in the summer of 2005, Weisglass informed Rice that Israel would expand the settlements beyond their construction lines - expand the settlement blocs - but with two constraints: any new construction would be adjacent to existing structures, and according to the balance of supply and demand in the free market. Construction in isolated settlements would be done only within their existing boundaries. For Israel, this was an official understanding. The Obama administration denies this. Either way, there was no written agreement.
Bush convened the Annapolis conference at the end of 2007 in a final attempt to revive the peace process. Ahead of the conference the Americans sought to rearticulate the understandings on construction in the settlements with then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Olmert informed the Americans that any Israeli construction beyond the Green Line would be restricted to four zones: Jerusalem, in which Israel never agreed to any restrictions; the settlement blocs, in which construction would be adjacent, but not confined, to existing construction boundaries; isolated settlements, in which construction would be confined to existing boundaries; and unauthorized outposts, which would be evacuated.
Following the Annapolis conference, in November 2007 Olmert authorized building permits for hundreds of new housing units beyond the Green Line. The American opposition to this was feeble: Rice said that "it was not helpful" to the diplomatic process. Israel interpreted this as a nod of consent. Olmert's made sure his plans for building in the settlements were in line with his promises to the Americans.
Now Netanyahu seeks to continue building in the settlement bloc on the basis of the understandings formulated by Sharon and Olmert. But Sharon evacuated 25 settlements, Olmert proposed withdrawing from most the West Bank, and Netanyahu, who is still unwilling to give anything in return, will have to deal with Obama's envoy, the same Mitchell who issued the report that is at the root of the demand to freeze construction in the settlements.
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