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Since the cease-fire that ended the Gaza crisis was signed, Israel and the Palestinians have fallen off the front pages in the United States. Understandably so, with so much going on in the world.
That doesn’t mean nothing is happening on our issue.
Last weekend’s Israeli government announcement that it plans to seize almost 1,000 acres in the occupied West Bank for the purpose of building yet another massive Jewish settlement graphically demonstrates how the current Israeli government seems determined once again to steer the country in the wrong direction.
When the war in Gaza ended, we at J Street said this was a moment of clear choice for Israel and the Palestinians. Either they could build on the cease-fire to lead their people back to negotiations and toward a resolution of the underlying conflict or they could stick to the current path -- which will not only leave the conflict unresolved but in a downward spiral.
It looks like the government of Benjamin Netanyahu is going for the second option – which should be no surprise given the make-up of his coalition.
That creates another moment of choice for the Obama Administration between passively accepting this settlement decision by confining itself to its usual pro-forma statement of regret or taking more meaningful action.
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As we said in a statement earlier this week, it’s time for the Obama Administration to make its words mean something. How can the world expect US leadership 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 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 involving all relevant departments of the federal government, that would certainly cause a political uproar in Israel.
If the 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 really causing serious damage to the US-Israel relationship.
Some have noted that the land being expropriated from five Palestinian villages lies within one of the settlement blocs that are likely to be retained by Israel in any prospective peace deal. But until there is such an agreement, this decision like other settlement announcements is seen by much of the world, including a large number of Americans who love and support Israel, as a unilateral move that flouts international law and opinion.
Instead of building new settlements, the Israeli government should put forward a proposal for borders between Israel and the Palestinian state and a timeline for ending the occupation as a basis for renewed negotiations to end the conflict. Once there is an agreed international boundary, Israel can build as much as it wants within its territory.
But the borders have to come first, and rolling back the land grab would be an important signal that Prime Minister Netanyahu understands the choices Israel faces.
- Jeremy Ben-Ami
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