This week President Obama got tougher with the mullahs — but not by much. He spoke of being “appalled and outraged” by their brutality, but also of “respect[ing] the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and … not interfering with Iran’s affairs.”
Yet, concurrently, Obama’s administration kept up its tough confrontation with Israel over the settlements issue. A meeting in Paris between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s Middle East envoy, got postponed, apparently because of too much unresolved tension over settlements. Instead, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is heading to Washington to perhaps work out the issue in meetings with Mitchell and other officials.
Netanyahu, in his June 14 speech at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, seemingly made major concessions to Obama. He reversed his lifelong opposition to a Palestinian state alongside Israel — saying it would have to be demilitarized, a situation known from the historical record to break down easily. And on settlements he said — and has since clarified — that Israel would build no more new ones nor set aside any further land, and would only allow natural growth within the boundaries of already-existing settlements.
But it’s still not enough for the administration, which keeps calling for a complete construction freeze in the settlements. With attention now focusing on the fine points of this drama (Does the administration mean no more kindergartens in the settlements? That families will have to live cramped or send some of their kids to dwell elsewhere?) what is often forgotten is how much Israel has already conceded on this issue, and how biased towards the Palestinian side the issue has already become.
The West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, has an official status as disputed — not occupied — territory whose ultimate disposition is supposed to be decided in negotiations. UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted months after the 1967 Six Day War, calls for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” — not from “the” or “all” the territories, and nowhere does it refer to settlements.
Indeed, Eugene Rostow, the late U.S. legal scholar and diplomat who played the leading U.S. role in negotiating 242, wrote in 1991 that:
[T]he Jewish right of settlement in Palestine west of the Jordan River, that is, in Israel, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip … has never been terminated and cannot be terminated except by a recognized peace between Israel and its neighbors … the Jews have the same right to settle [in the West Bank] as they have to settle in Haifa.