Watching the Israeli government convulse itself over 40 homes in the illegal settlement outpost of Amona, an outsider could be forgiven for wondering whether it had gone mad. If you don’t understand the underlying politics, there’s no rational explanation for why top government officials have devoted more hours to finding a way to avoid razing those 40 houses than they have to numerous weightier issues. The politics of it all makes more sense than the policy, and it also shows why Barack Obama’s approach to the settlements issue is ultimately destructive to the very two-state solution he claims to favor.
As Israeli commentator Yossi Verter noted last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t previously had problems taking steps that upset his base. In 2009, he instituted an unprecedented 10-month freeze on settlement construction, and he’s removed other illegal outposts with relatively large populations. Settlement construction has been slower on his watch than under any previous prime minister, as even the far-left Haaretz admits. He even imposed an undeclared–and unprecedented–building freeze in large Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. So what suddenly changed?
The answer, which became clear to me during a discussion over Shabbat lunch, stems from a generational divide. My generation’s most searing political memories are the 1993 Oslo Accords and the ensuing upsurge in terror; the failed Israeli-Palestinian summit in 2000 and the ensuing bloodshed of the second intifada; and the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and the ensuing rocket fire on Israel, which has so far led to three wars. So, from our perspective, Netanyahu is basically doing great. Unlike all his predecessors, he has resisted massive international pressure to make further territorial concessions that would be similarly disastrous for Israel’s security. Consequently, we’re willing to cut him slack on other issues, even when we disagree with him.
But people who were children during most or all of the above events have a very different view of Netanyahu. Lacking the memory of how quickly other prime ministers reversed themselves under pressure–Yitzhak Rabin on his promise of no negotiations with the PLO, Ariel Sharon on his promise of no unilateral pullout from Gaza–they don’t see Netanyahu as courageously holding the line against disastrous territorial withdrawals. They take this for granted.
What they see instead is the way he has ceded control of the land de facto by giving the international community veto power over when and where Israel builds. To take the most glaring example, what other country refrains from building desperately needed housing in its own capital because of fear of international pressure? Doesn’t that make a mockery of Israel’s claim to sovereignty in Jerusalem?
So after almost eight years of declared and undeclared construction freezes, younger activists are boiling over with frustration. They want to see Israel acting like a normal, sovereign country and building where it sees fit–which, for many of them, means all over the West Bank. That Amona has become the vehicle for their frustration is a simple accident of fate. Because the Supreme Court mandated its demolition by December 25, the government’s usual trick of postponing any decision won’t work anymore; it has to either raze the outpost or legalize it within the next three weeks.
But what does any of this have to do with Obama’s settlement policy? The answer is simple. Previous U.S. governments distinguished between areas Israel would almost certainly keep under any deal with the Palestinians–like large Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem or the major settlement blocs–and isolated settlements that would have to be evacuated under any such deal. Since building in the former areas didn’t actually impede prospects for a two-state solution, previous administrations didn’t raise much fuss about it.
The Obama Administration, in contrast, objects to new houses in large Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem just as vociferously as it does to new houses in the most isolated West Bank outpost. Nor has it given Netanyahu any credit for his unprecedented restraint on settlement construction; instead, it has consistently and falsely accused him of “aggressive” construction and then used this false accusation to blame him for the impasse in the peace process.
Had Obama quietly acquiesced in building in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs and given Netanyahu public credit for his restraint, Netanyahu would have had a solid case to make to his party’s angry young activists. It’s true we aren’t building everywhere, he could have said, but at least we’re building in some places that are important to us. Restraint in other areas is worth it for the sake of good relations with Washington.
But in the face of Obama’s actual policy, Netanyahu has no case at all. You aren’t building anywhere, the young activists justly retort, and if you’re going to generate just as much international outrage by building in Jerusalem as by building in Amona, why not build everywhere?
Netanyahu has striven desperately to find some sort of compromise over Amona, and he may succeed. But the young activists’ anger isn’t going to go away, so at some point, he’ll have to choose: start building and risk the international community’s displeasure, or continue his restraint and risk losing his own base. And when politicians in democratic countries are forced to choose between their voters and foreign leaders, the latter usually lose.
Thus, if the international community wants to ensure that settlement building won’t undermine a two-state solution, it needs to stop opposing construction in areas where construction does no such thing, like Jerusalem and the settlement blocs, and start giving Netanyahu credit for his restraint. Otherwise, he’ll have no ammunition with which to fight his base’s angry young activists. And if he can’t beat them, he’ll almost certainly join them.
Originally published in Commentary on December 5, 2106