Thanks to the U.S. Elections - and Iran

When Netanyahu meets Obama next month, settlements expansion probably won't be on the agenda. But the issue hasn't disappeared.

On March 5, U.S. President Barack Obama will receive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. The meeting probably won't be as awkward as the one in May 2011, which also coincided with the annual AIPAC conference. Two days before Obama's speech to AIPAC, he spoke at the State Department and outlined the parameters of a future Israeli-Palestinian agreement, which he defined as the 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps. The swaps were totally ignored, and Netanyahu lectured his host on the threats facing the Jewish state and "indefensible" borders. As a result, at the AIPAC conference, Obama had to explain what he actually meant in his previous speech.

This time, the meeting falls in the middle of a presidential elections year, and the two leaders have a much weightier question to ponder, courtesy of the Iranian government: to attack or not to attack. Hence the most toxic bilateral issue, settlement expansion, will likely be off the table this time.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama - Reuters

But it's not that it doesn't exist. This month, The Jerusalem Fund, a Washington-based pro-Palestinian think tank, gave the State Department a report on settler violence. It says that from September 2004 through December 2011, there were over 3,700 incidents of settler violence against Palestinians. To those who follow the news, the statistics won't come as a big surprise: stone throwing, 32 percent; arson, 11 percent; destruction of property, 11 percent; shootings, 5 percent; vehicular attack (which could be anything, including running over Palestinians' sheep ), 4 percent; physical attacks, 1 percent.

"With the exception of 2005, which saw a flurry of violent settler activity, settler violence has steadily increased year after year," the report said, adding that there is no particular correlation between house demolitions in the settlements and attacks on Palestinians. "2011 was by far the most violent year, seeing a 39 percent increase over the previous year and a 315 percent increase over a mere five years ago ... During this same period, Palestinian violence in the West Bank dropped dramatically (95% )."

The report says the Israeli government should step up law enforcement, including by arresting settler leaders and rabbis who advocate violence, while Washington "should press the government of Israel in both private and public forums to immediately enact policies to curb Israeli settler violence."

'Immoral and idiotic'

The State Department's reaction to such reports is that the administration's position on the settlements has not changed: It does not see their expansion as helpful to the peace process. But Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council of settlements, thinks the U.S. position has changed.

"Look, I think these violent incidents and vandalism are the second biggest strategic threat to the settlers after Barack Obama," he said. "Although I do tend to believe that the recent change with Obama's position is genuine, and not only political. I think President Obama is an intelligent man, and he understood that pressing on this topic ... will only lead him to further humiliations. Any American president that puts all his chips on this solution will be humiliated, because the two-state solution is an optical illusion...

"Why should Netanyahu and Obama waste time on this during their meeting? If [former Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert, with all he offered, didn't succeed, who will? What strategy could they possibly have to prevent Hamas from taking over the Palestinian state the day after it is created?"

Dayan said he hasn't seen this particular report, but he knows settler violence exists and treats it "with utmost severity."

"It's immoral and it's idiotic," he said. "And I agree with the report's claim that there is not necessarily a correlation between Israeli government actions or Palestinian actions and these incidents. It's simply one of the rotten fruits of the [2005] disengagement from Gaza."

There are dozens, maybe several hundred, settlers engaged in violence, out of over 350,000 settlers in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, he stressed. A tiny percentage.

"You don't need many people to put a mosque on fire," he said. "But while two years ago, when I condemned it, I might have been a minority, now I believe my views are well into consensus among the settlers. These are mostly young people who think, following the disengagement, that the game of democracy is not worth playing ... And yes, I personally would turn over those who are doing this."

Nevertheless, Dayan said, settler violence is "not comparable to the Palestinian terror" that was the "real cause of deteriorating relations between the Palestinians and the settlers."

He also scoffed at Israel Apartheid Week. "It's pure demonization", he said. "When there was an initiative to boycott the cultural center in [the settlement of] Ariel, I contacted the organizer at the Cameri Theater and told her that the real apartheid road is the one that leads to her theater, because a Palestinian would be stopped trying to get there, not on the road to Ariel. These 'separate roads' are a myth."

"Besides," he added, "the worst damage to Israel's image is caused by Gaza, which we left, not the West Bank. The Goldstone [inquiry commission] went to Gaza, the flotilla went to Gaza. In the West Bank, the army can do surgical operations. In Gaza, they have to bomb."

A beacon of civil rights

We recently attended two Israeli friends' wedding in Washington, DC. After 17 years together and two adorable kids, they finally decided to tie the knot. Not that, being gay, they were able to do it much earlier.

As the ceremony unfolded, they couldn't hide their excitement. The guests were as moved as the two women, and their kids were running around with flowers, giggling. It was a perfectly happy day, because for a loving couple that had gotten used to the thought that they wouldn't be able to enjoy the same rights as other couples, it was suddenly possible. When you see others' happiness so close, you can't stop asking yourself: Who would be cruel enough to deny them this right? Who could stand there and tell them to their face, no, you don't deserve it? Yet in the United States, this is still far from being obvious.

Earlier this month, a federal appeals court in California overturned that state's gay marriage ban as unconstitutional. But the marriages are still barred, since the matter is expected to reach the Supreme Court. Last Friday, Republican Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill to legalize gay marriage in his state, New Jersey.

Still, gay marriage has been legalized in seven U.S. states plus Washington, DC, and Maryland is soon expected to become the eighth.

In Israel, for all the praise of Tel Aviv as the best gay travel destination, the issue is also far from being solved. But thank you, America, for being a beacon of civil rights on this topic - albeit a flickering one.