“Insulting” is how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Israel’s treatment of Vice President Joe Biden during his recent trip to Israel, to support peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s hard to dispute that assessment.

After meeting with Israeli officials and declaring there was “no space between the United States and Israel,” Biden was hit by news of the Israeli government’s approval of 1,600 new Jewish-only homes on Palestinian land in occupied East Jerusalem. The settlements are illegal under international law, and the US government has consistently opposed their construction since the Johnson administration.

Following that announcement, Clinton reportedly presented Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a list of demands to be met for the resumption of peace talks. The White House’s special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, also postponed indefinitely his visit to the region.

So far, Netanyahu has refused to apologize for anything other than the announcement’s timing. Netanyahu can afford to be defiant because he knows it’s unlikely that Washington will take any punitive measures against Israel for its refusal to cooperate. The Obama administration established this precedent last fall, when it backed down on insisting that Israel freeze all settlement construction prior to the resumption of peace talks.

Having failed to persuade Netanyahu to meet this condition, the White House adopted a face-saving strategy with Israel whereby Israel would halt the West Bank settlement construction for a ten-month period and the two sides could tout the measure as an “unprecedented” step toward peace. But the Israeli “concession” was hardly exceptional, as it did not include the 2,500 settlement units already under construction, 500 new units, or building in East Jerusalem.

With a well-managed PR campaign and a quiescent media that for the most part failed to question the narrative, Israel was portrayed as having taken a significant step for peace and the White House could bill the compromise as a success for its mediation efforts. The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, came off as the spoiler when it refused to engage in negotiations with anything short of a total construction freeze in all occupied territory, including East Jerusalem.

While Washington is now blaming Israel for foiling peace talks, it has taken no measures to punish Israel materially. The suspension of peace negotiations is hardly a concern for Netanyahu, who retains popularity on the basis of his hawkishness and who currently must satisfy his more hard-line coalition partners. Unless there is a real cost for refusing to cooperate, the Israeli government won’t take negotiations seriously. In order to make progress, America has to prove that it can actually persuade Israel to deliver. But if a settlement freeze is proving so difficult, prospects for a final peace deal — that will involve far stickier issues — will be dim.

Despite high-profile attempts at restarting negotiations, it’s unclear if the Obama administration even has a strategy for resolving the conflict. When asked why he remained hopeful for peace, Biden described the “untenable status quo” as being sufficient grounds for optimism. But the “untenable status quo” has persisted for decades. To successfully broker a deal, Washington has to start pressuring Israel to cooperate. Conciliatory rhetoric and top diplomatic efforts to bring peace to the region have raised expectations, but with little change on the ground, unmet expectations involve the risk of political upheaval.

Resolving the Israeli Palestinian conflict isn’t only crucial to Israel’s security. It’s also essential for our own safety. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 16, Gen. Petraeus warned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel.” Throughout the latest diplomatic spat, American officials have insisted that on matters of Israeli security, there’s no space between the US and Israel. The United States should expect the same commitment from Israel.

How to cite this article:

Bayann Hamid "Washington Must Pressure Israel to Stop Illegal Settlements," Middle East Report Online, March 23, 2010.

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