Israel has actually built no new settlements in the West Bank since 1999. Although since then population growth has been considerable, it has all been within already-existing settlements. Netanyahu has promised to continue that policy with no further territorial expansions of settlements. The built-up parts of the settlements today constitute about 1.7 percent of the West Bank. Needless to say, extensive Palestinian building continues unhampered in much of the remaining 98 percent.
And the land whose great bulk Israeli policy seems to have conceded before final-status negotiations have even begun is not any old land. It is, first of all, Judea and Samaria, the heartland of the Jewish people, the origin of the Bible and the Judeo-Christian civilization built on it. Second, it is land that mostly, according to the 1967 Joint Chiefs of Staff study (see here for the map) and all other systematic U.S. and Israeli military assessments, needs to remain in Israeli hands for Israel to remain defensible. Meanwhile, it is hard to see how continued building or “natural growth” within the 1.7 percent would pose a problem for Palestinians — yet the Obama administration is making a major, contentious issue even out of this.
It is often claimed, especially by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that Israel has an obligation for a settlement freeze under the road map. That document does state that “Israel also freezes all settlement activity” — but only at the very end of a paragraph that lists these antecedent obligations of the other side:
[T]he Palestinians immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence. … Palestinians and Israelis resume security cooperation … to end violence, terrorism, and incitement through restructured and effective Palestinian security services. Palestinians undertake comprehensive political reform in preparation for statehood, including drafting a Palestinian constitution, and free, fair and open elections upon the basis of those measures.
Only then, according to the road map, does the Israeli settlement freeze kick in.
Yet at a time when Palestinian terror continues and anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic incitement remains endemic in the West Bank and Gaza, the Obama administration keeps exerting relentless pressure on Israel for a settlement freeze and none (or so little the radar doesn’t pick it up) on the Palestinians to even begin conforming with road map language.
All in all, the U.S. pressure on Israel on this issue is one-sided, harsh, and obsessive, and shows none of the deference to Israeli sovereignty that Obama is still taking pains to demonstrate to Tehran. All this flows logically from Obama’s Cairo speech, in which he balanced criticisms of the Muslim world with alleged equivalent sins of the Western world while singling out Israeli settlements as intolerable.
Israel will likely have to choose between buckling still further, compromising its rights and jeopardizing its security, or bracing itself for ongoing, possibly ruinous discord with its ally.