Over the weekend, the Israeli Prime Minister’s office announced plans to build 1,400 new housing units across the Green Line — including in the deeply contentious and controversial settlement of Kiryat Arba, overlooking Hebron — in response to a horrific wave of recent terrorist attacks against Israelis.
We’ve all seen such statements countless times before. Over the past 49 years, Israeli governments have made innumerable decisions to build new West Bank settlements and expand existing ones. Increasingly, these expansion announcements are framed as legitimate responses to terror — a tactic for “sending a message” to would-be terrorists that Israel will never stop building in the West Bank.
In reality, this tactic only helps perpetuate the cycle of violence and despair — and makes Israel less secure in the long run. Instead of reviewing the ways in which the occupation has made Israelis less safe, and pursuing creative and proactive solutions, the government promises only more expansion, more tension and more punishment for the Palestinian people as a whole.
The international community, including the United States, has long been frustrated by Israeli settlement policy. Over the course of decades, almost every major announcement has been greeted with US criticism. Yet this criticism has done almost nothing to slow the inexorable expansion of the Israeli presence in the occupied territory.
President Ronald Reagan, in September 1982 when there were approximately 13,000 settlers, stated: “Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be free and fairly negotiated.” That year, Israel established the settlements of Alei Zahav, Almon, Eshkalot, Kiryat Netafim, Negahot, Neve Daniel, Nokdim, No’omi and Pene Hever.
President George H.W. Bush said in 1990: “The foreign policy of the United States says we do not believe there should be new settlements in the West Bank or in East Jerusalem. And I will conduct that policy as if it’s firm, which it is.”
By then, there were already 76,000 Jews living in West Bank settlements.
President Bill Clinton also spoke out against settlements. Before leaving office in January 2001, he said: “The Israeli people also must understand that . . . the settlement enterprise and building bypass roads in the heart of what they already know will one day be part of a Palestinian state is inconsistent with the Oslo commitment that both sides negotiate a compromise.”
As he spoke, the settler population was slightly over 200,000.
President George W. Bush spoke out repeatedly against settlements. In 2002, he said: “Israeli settlement activity in occupied territories must stop, and the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognized boundaries.”
When he left office in 2009, the settler population was almost 300,000.
President Barack Obama has been outspoken against the settlements. In 2009, he said: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”
By early 2015, the Jewish population living in West Bank settlements had reached around 373,000. By the time Obama leaves office next January, it will probably exceed 400,000.
The inescapable fact is that successive Israeli governments have run rings around successive US administrations on this issue. They settle and we issue statements — which they ignore. Every day, in rain and sun and snow and fog, they build.
Isn’t it time for the United States to do more than just issue another statement? Or should Israel be allowed to flout the will of the United States and the entire international community with total impunity — as it has done for the past 49 years?
The settlements undermine the prospects of a two-state peace deal with the Palestinians and help entrench an occupation that has now entered its 50th year. They erode any sense among Palestinians that Israel has any intention of ever leaving the West Bank.
What could the United States do? For a start, it could return to publicly referring to West Bank settlements as “illegal,” which remains the official, if not recently articulated, US position.
It could state that the next time a balanced resolution, which includes condemnation of the settlements, is brought to the UN Security Council, the US will consider, based on the overall text, not exercising its veto.
It could make clear that official Israeli action extending the boundaries of an authorized settlement to encompass a previously unauthorized outpost will be regarded by the United States as the establishment of a new settlement in violation of Israel’s obligations under existing international agreements.
It could consistently enforce existing American customs regulations in effect since 1995, which require that country-of-origin product labels accurately reflect where products are made when they come from the territory over the Green Line.
Finally, given that there are a limited number of organizations currently receiving US tax deductions for contributions toward activities that help fuel settlement expansion, it could have the IRS examine and report back to the President on whether organizations operating over the Green Line do in fact meet the existing legal standard that such charitable activities not be “illegal [or] contrary to a clearly defined and established public policy.”
Or, it could issue another statement and see if that works.