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No Meddling With Iran ... But Oh, Those Settlements!

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.

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.