Sunday, November 8, 2009

Obama and the settlements: two Israeli views

For Ed Rettig, one of the biggest mistakes Barack Obama has made in foreign policy is demanding that Israel halt all building of settlements in the occupied West Bank.

For Larry Derfner, Obama's mistake was in caving in to Israeli insistence that it continue to work on existing settlements.

Both Rettig and Derfner are savvy observers of the Israeli scene. Rettig is the acting director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel office. He began his professional life as a lawyer, later became a Reformed Rabbi and now is a central figure among Jewish advocacy organizations. Derfner emigrated from the U.S. to Israel in the mid-1970s and is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post. He describes himself as "a left-wing Zionist."

Rettig argued that Obama's mistake in demanding that all settlements stop was that it united the people on the fringes of Israeli politics who are ideological about the settlements with the mainstream. He pointed out that 85 percent of the 300,000 or so Israeli settlers -- those living in cities built by Israelis on Palestinian land in the West Bank -- live in five settlements that are right on the 1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. The more ideological -- in some cases, very aggressive -- settlers are in the other settlements scattered farther across the West Bank.

Obama's demand, Rettig said, "united Israelis instead of breaking off the margins. It drove them into the lap of the settlers."

After Israeli uproar and lobbying following Obama's demand, the U.S. administration has been easy the pressure, which in turn has led the Palestinian leadership to back away from the peace process.

That is the big mistake Obama made, said Derfner. When Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel's prime minister earlier this year, he undid most of the understandings that the previous Israeli government had reached with the Palestinian leadership. Obama's settlement freeze demand was a way to give the Palestinians something to work with in resuming negotiations. But when Israel refused to go along, the prospect for negotiations ran aground.

Derfner said that the settlement lobby is incredibly powerful within Israeli government -- not just the settlers themselves, but real estate interests, commercial interests, religious splinter groups all have much invested in expanding the settlements.

"Israel of its own volition will not and cannot get out of the West Bank," Derfner argued. "The only thing that will do that is a fear of a greater god than the settlers -- and that is America."

While they disagree on the politics of the settlements, Rettig and Derfner did share a common theme in our conversations with them on our last day in Israel. It is a theme of pessimism -- hardly a high note on which to end the trip.

Rettig cited a mood of exasperation among Israelis. "The Israelis have had it," he said. "They are cynical and doubtful of the capacity of anyone to bring peace." He said the Palestinians are in a weird place, with Hamas unable to govern in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority facing uncertainty in the West Bank with Mahmoud Abbas' announcement that he will not seek another term as their leader. And he thinks the Obama administration is inexperienced and naive in foreign policy.

Derfner's criticism of Obama is for not putting enough pressure on Israel, he thinks his adopted country has moved very far to the right politically and that is has let the chance for peace slip away by not dealing seriously with Palestinian leaders like Abbas who have brought some sense of order to the West Bank and who have an openness to dealing with Israel.

One of the most constant realities of this part of the world is that the prospects for war and peace are continually shifting. At the moment, few of those we talked to during our two weeks here were feeling much optimism. But all of them in their own way are trying to create a path to a better life for all those who inhabit this contested country.

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