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Obama: halt to new Israeli settlements is in America’s security interests

The Guardian

Thursday 4 شوال 1430, by Chris McGreal, Rory McCarthy

All the versions of this article:

  • English

Increasingly fractious relations between the US and Israel hit a low unseen in nearly two decades yesterday after the Jewish state rejected President Obama’s demand for an end to settlement construction in the West Bank, and the president responded by suggesting that Israeli intransigence endangers America’s security.

The dispute, which blew in during the open hours before Obama met the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, reflects the depth of the shift in US policy away from accommodating Israel, and towards pressuring it to end years of stalling negotiations over the creation of a Palestinian state as it continues to grab land in the occupied territories.

Obama put down a marker at a difficult meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, in Washington last week when he demanded a halt to the expansion of settlements, which now house close to 500,000 in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, as they are a major obstacle to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Yesterday the Israeli government spokesman, Mark Regev, said Netanyahu will defy the White House call by continuing construction in existing settlements.

"Israel … will abide by its commitments not to build new settlements and to dismantle unauthorised outposts," he said. "As to existing settlements, their fate will be determined in final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. In the interim period, normal life must be allowed to continue in these communities."

Obama responded with a sharp rebuff a few hours later by pointedly reiterating his demand for an immediate settlement freeze after meeting Abbas yesterday. The president said that "stopping settlements and making sure that there is a viable Palestinian state" is in the long term security interests of Israel as well as the US.

Obama said he would not set an "artificial" timetable for a two-state solution but that it is a matter of urgency. The president also called on the Palestinians to end incitement and anti-Israeli sentiments.

Asked what action he would take if Israel does not freeze expansion, Obama said: "I think it is important not to assume the worst but to assume the best."

Settlements have long been viewed as a litmus test of Israel’s intent. Even at the height of the Oslo peace process, Israel more than doubled the number of Jews it moved to live in the West Bank, raising fundamental questions among the Palestinians as to whether Israel was more interested in grabbing land than peace.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had earlier kept up the pressure on Netanyahu with an unusually blunt call for a halt to settlement growth. She said the Americans "intend to press that point".

The dispute over settlements, and Netanyahu’s defiance of Obama’s call, is likely to set the tone for future relations as the White House attempts to move toward negotiations to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state.

Robert Malley, former special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs to Clinton, said: "The surprise in this is not the Israeli position. The surprise the forcefulness of the American one. Rarely have we seen it at this pace and with this intensity and unambiguity. The US has taken a position that doesn’t give much wriggle room at all to the Israeli government."

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