Op-Ed

U.S. should not be a silent partner to Israeli settlement expansion

The U.S. needs to do as it once did: Call the Israeli settlements illegal

Last weekend's Israeli government announcement that it plans to seize almost 1,000 acres near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank for the purpose of building yet another massive Jewish settlement should be the straw that breaks the camel's back in Washington.

For decades, the United States has greeted each new settlement building announcement from Jerusalem with a pious statement of disapproval. Generally, these statements, issued by the White House or State Department, contain adjectives like "unhelpful," "counterproductive" or even "illegitimate."

Successive Israeli governments have blithely ignored these protestations, and the settler population living over the 1967 Green Line has grown from around 10,000 in 1972 to around 515,000 today.

It's time for the United States to make its words mean something. How can the world expect effective U.S. leadership and action in dealing with hostile actors across the Middle East when even its closest friend in the region flagrantly ignores its policies?

What can Washington do? Actually, quite a lot. Israelis understand very well that their country's most important international relationship is with the United States — the only ally it can, in the final analysis, rely on, the only one standing between it and almost total diplomatic isolation on this issue.

So if the United States were merely to state that it was undertaking a thorough, top-to-bottom review of its policy toward Israeli settlements, a review involving all relevant departments of the federal government, that would certainly cause Israel to take notice.

If the Obama administration were to go a step further and declare that it is the view of the United States that settlements are not merely "unhelpful" or "illegitimate" but illegal under international law as laid out in the Fourth Geneva Convention, ordinary Israelis would understand that their government's determination to push on with settlements was causing real, serious damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The United States correctly called the settlements illegal until 1980, but this policy was reversed by President Reagan. Since then, Washington has used vaguer, less meaningful expressions of disapproval that Israel has interpreted as a tacit green light to move ahead.

Going back to the previous, clear terminology would empower opponents of these settlement decisions within the Israeli Cabinet, including Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have to explain to voters how he justifies his settlement policy in the context of the harm it would be doing to the U.S.-Israel alliance, as well as the wider diplomatic discredit Israel is facing around the world.

The latest decision by the government — described by one Israeli peace group as the largest grab of Palestinian land for the purpose of building settlements in 30 years — could hardly be more negative and harmful, both in its timing and intrinsic nature.

It may be true that the land, which is being expropriated from five Palestinian villages, lies within one of the settlement blocs likely to be retained by Israel in any prospective peace deal. But until there is such an agreement, this kind of land grab can only be seen as a blatant unilateral move to create new facts on the ground.

This Israeli decision was particularly unfortunate coming on the heels of the latest Gaza cease-fire, which seemed to offer a new start for diplomacy in tackling the conflict. One would have thought, following that war, that Israel would do everything possible to strengthen Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is committed to diplomacy and nonviolence. Instead, this move undermines Abbas and reinforces his opponents, including Hamas.

The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research last week released a poll showing that Hamas has overtaken Abbas and his Fatah party in popularity. A clear majority of Palestinians say they support rocket attacks against Israel and armed resistance in general. Netanyahu has often said that the Palestinians must choose between Hamas and peace. So far, he is making that choice very easy for them.

Israel's leaders and its people also must own up to the choice they face: Resolve the underlying conflict with the Palestinians by the establishment of two states, or leave the conflict unresolved and in a downward spiral.

Sadly, Israel's present government, as this latest settlement decision shows, seems intent on making one wrong choice after another.

The United States should no longer be a silent partner to never-ending settlement expansion. As a friend and ally, it owes Israel and Israelis the truth — unrelenting settlement expansion undermines hopes of peace, weakens and isolates Israel, and harms the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is president and founder of the U.S. lobbying group J Street.

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