Settlement Freeze: Building Bridges, at Cut-throat Prices

A settlement freeze is a faith-building measure toward the U.S. administration, and at a bargain price.

“Stopping settlements and making sure that there is a viable Palestinian state” is in the long-term security interests of Israel as well as the United States, Barack Obama said in May 2009. Now, in November 2010, a freeze in settlement building has become an existential interest for Israel. There is no long- or short-term interest here. Time is up − with or without F-35 fighter jets, with or without a pledge of a U.S. veto in the Security Council against anti-Israel resolutions.

This is Israel’s time to pay back its debt. In other places, in other scenarios, a debtor who doesn’t pay up is liable to find himself at the bottom of a lake. This may not be the kind of threat usually employed by the United States, though it can already be seen punching its right hand into its left palm as it grows impatient waiting for Israel to respond. When the U.S. president was asked last year what he would do if Israel didn’t freeze settlement building, he suggested hoping for the best, rather than preparing for the worst. And what now? What if the Israeli government doesn’t freeze construction? How will Washington react?

A West Bank building freeze for three months, six months or a year will not advance the peace process. It won’t bring the Palestinians closer to agreeing to the borders in which Israel seeks to confine them, or solve the refugee problem, Jerusalem’s status or the division of water resources. Three months will not bring us an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, not even a draft agreement. Israel knows this, Washington is no fool, and as for the Palestinians, they know better than anyone just how malleable Israeli timetables can be.

If the previous suspension of construction, which lasted 10 months, was intended to lay the groundwork for serious negotiations for stopping settlement building, the current freeze has another role: It’s a lesson in discipline and friendship. Obama isn’t ordering Israel to return to the 1967 borders, evacuate all the settlements, empty Jewish homes in East Jerusalem or grant passports to millions of Palestinian refugees. But he does expect a country receiving billions of dollars in aid − a country criticism of which in international forums Washington rebuffs, whose U.S. military support keeps it alive − to comport itself politely, or at the very least not humiliate it.

Washington has no clear plan for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor does it want to fall into the same trap in which Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush got their fingers caught. It’s not certain the United States is eager to foot the bill for a peace agreement. After all, the evacuation of just a few dozen settlements ‏(only those that, for reasons not entirely clear, are not widely believed to be destined to remain within Israeli territory‏) will cost more than the entire F-35 deal. Still, America has to retain its dignity and status as a superpower. That’s the long-term security interest of which Obama spoke, an interest shared between Washington and Jerusalem. Because if the American elephant takes a nosedive, even the mosquito on his back gets crushed.

The demand for a settlement freeze was a mistake from the beginning, both the first time and now. At first it was a goodwill gesture, a clause in the Middle East road map that no one took seriously. Now it has become an existential condition, one that has shunted the real debate to the sidelines. American pressure, which was supposed to be applied toward a final-status agreement, is now being wasted on an ineffectual objective. This is not the only mistake Washington has made throughout the years it nursed the peace process.

The White House long adhered to the Israeli view of the conflict, a view that at first held that a diplomatic process must pass through Jordan, later opposed recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, and turned a blind eye to settlement building. This view also made do with toothless spokespeople’s statements against the annexation of East Jerusalem and understood too late that while the Middle East conflict may not necessarily endanger world peace, it does directly undermine America’s standing on the world stage.

The United States now wants to make amends for its mistakes and regain some of the respect it has lost. We would be better off not even speculating about what would happen if Israel had been dependent on another country, Russia for example, and had to contend with pressure from Moscow to freeze construction in the territories.

A settlement freeze is not just another gesture to the Palestinians, an implementation of the road map or preparation for a West Bank withdrawal. This time, it’s a faith-building measure toward the U.S. administration, and at a bargain price.