Posted by David Curtis on August 05, 2015 in Blog

Ariel3.jpgIt has long been taboo to criticize Israel in most public forums; when there have been even slight hints of criticism, politicians must – without exception – preface their comments by affirming the United States’ “unshakable” commitment to the Jewish state based on our “shared values” and because Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” You know the drill.

It has not been taboo, however, for politicians to not only criticize but actively oppose the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories. It should surprise no one that since 1967, every American administration has denounced the seemingly endless construction of Israeli housing units in occupied Palestinian territory – how could any American support the destruction of homes and annexation of land by a country who is supposed to be our democratic partner?

What may be surprising, though, is that U.S. officials' rhetoric concerning settlements has softened immensely through the decades. When Israel first began constructing settlements on Palestinian lands, the intrusions were understood to be blatantly illegal and immoral – an obvious barrier to peace. In the words of the Carter Administration, “We consider [settlements] to be contrary to international law and an impediment to the successful conclusion of the Middle East peace process.”

In the 1970s, the notion of Israel seizing Palestinian land seemed so patently ridiculous in the U.S. that pro-settlement arguments appeared to be either completely disingenuous, or utterly delusional. Take the language from settlement-proponents at a 1977 congressional subcommittee hearing: “The main purpose of settlements today is security … I don’t expect to see a substantial migration of Jews from Israel proper into the West Bank.” Another witness agreed, adding “settlements have a long term impact of facilitating ethnic diversity and long-term peace.” As we all know, Israeli settlements have done anything but facilitate “long-term peace,” while there has been quite the “substantial migration” of Israelis into the West Bank. So looking back today, those previous assertions are plainly absurd. But this was the way that advocates struggled to defend Israeli impositions in their earliest stages, because there was otherwise no defense for settlement construction. In truth, Israeli occupation is indefensible.

Settlements ceaselessly continued, though, and today they are no less illegal – and devastating to the peace process – than they were in 1977. In the 1980s, during the Ronald Regan administration, the U.S. position on the legal status of settlements shifted to “not illegal.” That decision came without the rigorous debate and consideration one would expect, and has gone unchallenged to this day. Ever since the Reagan administration there has been no shortage of bizarre U.S. expressions of disapproval, calling the settlements “unhelpful,” even “illegitimate,” but never illegal. In an exchange just last week, after the Israeli Prime Minister approved of 300 new settler homes in the West Bank, a U.S. State Department spokesperson issued a statement “condemning settlements.” But he immediately backtracked: “Sorry, I apologize. Yeah, just to clarify … we oppose steps to advance construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” Apparently, “condemning” Israeli settlements is a bit too forceful.

What has happened? Why have we softened on an issue that is so desperately clear? It is evident that these settlements are serious obstacles to a two-state solution; yet, in the face of nearly worldwide condemnation, Israel persists. Taking real steps – such as withholding loan guarantees – have worked before in halting settlements (though to suggest such a measure today could be political suicide).

Nothing about the legality of settlements has changed, yet we seem to have forgotten that they are perhaps the principal barrier to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. 

David Curtis is an intern with the Arab American Institute

comments powered by Disqus