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January-February 2011
Vol. 36, No. 1

Middle East: Time to condemn Israeli settlements

The following article is excerpted from a longer piece written by Philip C. Wilcox, Jr., president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP). Read the article in its entirety at the FMEP website.

The Obama administration will face a moment of truth in deciding how to vote on a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements under international law now being drafted on behalf of the Palestinians for presentation early this year. But the administration’s thwarted efforts to freeze settlements, the huge obstacle settlements pose to a two-state peace, Israel’s aggressive expansion of settlements, and the need to restore U.S. credibility as a peace maker are all powerful reasons for supporting this initiative.

Nevertheless, the State Department has said it prefers that settlements be resolved through negotiations as “the only viable path” for ending the conflict. This position is also being pressed by Israel and domestic groups that support Israeli policies unconditionally, and by the House of Representatives which has already called for an American veto of UN resolutions not approved by Israel. The Obama administration has not yet said how it would vote on such a resolution. It still has time to decide that the U.S. should vote yes, for compelling reasons.

Israel’s expansionist settlement policy defeats any prospect of winning the U.S. goal of a two-state peace. Direct negotiations over the years, absent effective external intervention, have made no progress whatsoever in changing this policy. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to expand settlements ... strongly suggests that he seeks Israel’s domination and control there indefinitely. A U.S. veto or abstention, or a successful effort to bury this initiative, would signal to Netanyahu that he can continue to build settlements with impunity. This would further undermine U.S. credibility, and deal another blow to Palestinian President Abbas. Instead, the Obama administration should be looking for authoritative ways to persuade Israel that the U.S. is serious about halting settlements and promoting a two-state peace. A Security Council resolution condemning settlements as a grave obstacle to peace and reaffirming their illegality under international law offers such an opportunity. ...

No one expects that the UN action and international law alone will resolve the settlements issue. Ultimately, negotiations must do this. But UN action will support (not preempt) effective U.S. diplomacy. There is no reason whatsoever for the U.S., which has championed the UN and international law in other conflicts, to continue its longstanding policy of excluding these institutions from their legitimate role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Obama’s challenge in Cairo in June 2009 that the “United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements” laid down a strong marker. But it has seemed designed to continue the flimsy distinction between the “illegitimacy” of settlements and their “illegality” under the Fourth Geneva Convention and the practice of all U.S. presidents for the past 30 years of avoiding condemnation of Israeli settlements as “illegal” in the UN and elsewhere under international law.

It was not always this way. After the 1967 war and until 1981, all U.S. administrations condemned settlements as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. ...

But in 1981 President Reagan disagreed with his predecessors, saying in a press conference that settlements were “not illegal,” and the former U.S. policy lapsed. ...

The U.S. policy since 1981 of finessing the legal issue, blocking UN action, and, with rare exceptions, soft-pedaling U.S. opposition to settlements until President Obama’s strenuous effort to win a freeze, has been very costly. At the time of Reagan’s about-face, there were only 16,000 settlers in the West Bank, compared to over 300,000 today, and 59,000 in East Jerusalem compared to over 200,000 today. This huge growth makes an Israeli-Palestinian peace vastly more difficult ...

The traditional U.S. policy of blocking the UN and application of international law, thus protecting Israel from its own dangerous policies of occupation, is a dysfunctional anachronism. It does no favor to Israel, whose future as a Jewish, democratic state is at risk. It contradicts the Obama administration’s own opposition to settlements, and it forfeits a useful lever in persuading Israel to change its policy. Rather than bowing to domestic political pressures, and clinging to the view that the UN and international law have no role to play, the U.S. should rejoin the virtual international consensus on these issues, stand up for its own declared interests, and vote for the proposed Security Council resolution.

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